Category Archives: Imperfect Mirrors

Tag for posts that are part of the novel “The Imperfect Mirrors”.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Epilogue

    My name is Way. For the last four years I’d been a student at the Parliament of Time. That was changing. With our general schooling behind us, my classmates and I were moving on to the real training for the roles we’ve chosen for ourselves. For the longest time that terrified me. I’d thought that “moving on” meant “moving on from the relationships I’d formed with the people there”.

    I’d been wrong and there was a band of pink light on the ring finger of my left hand to prove it. I held onto that and treasured the reassurance it offered. I’d given away a piece of my heart to be near the one that I love, and received so much more in return.

    I smiled as I felt the warmth of Jin’s ring dance under my fingers. Exchanging the rings had been a symbol of what we’d forged between us. The truth though was that I’d given her my heart the first time we’d embraced. She’d pulled me back to myself when I was crumbling to pieces, and yet in all our our time together after that, she’d never held it as a debt against me.

    I loved Jin from the first day that I knew her. It wasn’t love at first sight though. The first time I saw her, she confused me because she tried to help me. Then she scared me because she wanted to talk to me. And finally she terrified me because, at my most destructive, she embraced me. She saw who I wanted to be and offered me the chance to be that person. It sounds simple but believing in someone, especially someone who can hurt you deeply, can be the hardest thing in the world. Jin had done that for me, and I almost couldn’t help but fall in love with her.

    Somehow, in falling in love with her though, I hadn’t seen how much she was falling in love with me. She saw me as beautiful and she made me see myself that way too. We’d always been open and shared how happy we were to be together, but I don’t think either of us had reflected on what that meant until we were faced with being parted. When it came time to put into words what I knew inside, it had been easy to admit how I felt about her to myself. What had been hard was listening to the voice that told me I might mean as much to her as she did to me. Maybe it had been too much to hope for, that I could make anyone as happy as she made me.

    I can be quiet, and scary sometimes. I’ve destroyed things that can never be replaced. It’s easy for me to see why someone who really knew me would want to run and run and never come back. She’d never turned away though. For as terrible as I can be, she’d never let me go after that first embrace, and I’d never wanted her too. I think I gave her my heart because even from the beginning, she’d invited me into hers.

    “You have a nice smile on your face. Happy thoughts?” Jin asked. We were sitting together on a big comfy beanbag chair, with Jin on my lap, resting her head on my shoulder.

    “The happiest.” I said and wrapped my arms around her. A warm and gentle night breeze was blowing across the balcony of her parent’s home but she snuggled in closer as though seeking shelter.

    “I think I understand why some people want to freeze time.” Jin said with a contented sigh.

    “Don’t you dare!” I warned her. Meddling with time was one of those ideas that sounds good and yet rarely ever works out well in practice.

    “Wouldn’t dream of it.” she mumbled before giving me a light kiss on the neck. “It’s too nice a night to spoil with another trip to the Auditor’s office.”

    We’d each spent the day being “debriefed” by the Parliament’s official auditors. Jin’s debriefing had taken longer than mine for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that she’d kind of broken the world we supposed to be protecting. To be fair, she’d also come up with a novel solution for fixing it.

    “Speaking of the Auditor’s, what did they say about ‘Guy’?” I asked her.

    “They weren’t all that happy that I’d invited a dream creature into a real world, but they had to admit it was an effective ploy.” she said.

    “So they think Madelaine will be ok with him?” I asked.

    “I think so. They were at least talking about monitoring her where she was rather than extracting her back to the Parliament before she wrecked the world.” she said.

    “Did they say anything about how that will affect Kari’s project?” I asked.

    “Apparently this counts as a gold medal success. Her fate weaving has changed the fate of the world for the better, including identifying a latent dream weaver and arranging for one of the least disruptive resolutions on record. The idea of using creatures like ‘Guy’ has been considered for a while but no one was willing to risk it before us, so Kari gets some bonus points for arranging the situation that required it.” Jin said.

    “Where did you even find ‘Guy’ by the way? When Kari said he didn’t exist I thought that part of the fate weaving was going to turn into a chaos vortex or something.”

    “Believe it or not Peri led me to him.” Jin said.

    “Your sister? Wait, did she awaken too?” I asked.

    “No, she just sort of fell into a rift that had formed under her bed.” Jin said.

    “Oh, you mother had mentioned that. That wasn’t a rift to one of the Faerie realms?” I asked, feeling a bit guilty. I’d noticed it when it was pointed out but it had been tiny and there was a barrier in place so I’d assumed it was something minor.

    “Nope, it was a full rift into the dreaming. Belle looked into and probably could have handled everything but once Peri followed her in I wanted to make sure they both made it out ok.” Jin said. “Oh, and do you mind if Peri kind of ‘borrows’ Belle for a while?”

    “Borrow Belle?” I asked. Belle had been my familiar when I met Jin. In freeing me, Jin had freed her as well. Without the need to attend to my every whim, these days Belle was closer to being my kid sister than a servant. We were still close but it wasn’t uncommon for her to go off exploring for a week or two if something new caught her interest. If either of us were in trouble we knew we could call, but with the safety offered by  the Parliament that hadn’t been necessary in years.

    “Yeah, Belle made the mistake of appearing before Peri in her ‘puppy form’ and now Peri is convinced that she’s the best puppy in the world.” Jin said.

    “Belle? How are you doing with this?” I asked via dream speech.

    “I think I can tolerate it.” Belle sent back. The undercurrent of the dream speech carried the sense of how wonderful it was having Peri scratch right behind her ears while she was in ‘puppy form’.

    “Thank you Belle!” Jin said in dream speech too and then added in regular speech, “I think she’s happy to have someone to protect again.”

    “I shudder to think what would happen to someone who tried to mess with your sister.” I said. Between Jin, her mother and her brother, Peri was probably the best guarded four year old in the world. Adding Belle to the mix was an invitation for Peri to go out seeking trouble, but I didn’t mention that. I wasn’t worried the two of them would get into anything too bad and what trouble they did find probably deserved what it was going to get.

    “It’s funny to think how much older she’ll be before I get to spend much time with her again.” Jin mused.

    “Having second thoughts?” I asked.

    “No. I’ve had enough of those and you banished them quite wonderfully.” Jin said.

    “No second thoughts about us either?” I asked. I already knew the answer but it was nice hearing her say it.

    “It should feel weird to be married right? Or at least different? But it just feels…right.” she said.

    “I know what you mean. It’s like nothing changed between us. I love you today and I loved you yesterday. That feels the same. The only difference is that now other people know too.” I said.

    “Speaking of letting other people know, my mom asked if we’d like to have a reception.” Jin said.

    “Oh.” I said and felt a warm bubble of new happiness float up within me. I knew Jin’s family but I hadn’t ever spent a lot of time them. The thought of her mother welcoming me into their circle was nice. I blinked and felt my throat get a little tight.

    Family was something I’d been without for a long time.

    “We don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Jin offered.

    “No, I’d like to. I’d love to in fact.” I said and then blurted out the idea that had leapt on me. “Do you think we could invite my parents too?”

    “Your parents?” Jin asked. She looked confused and I could understand why. My parents didn’t exist. Not in any proper sense of the term. My father had destroyed himself utterly seeking to restore the girl I’d once been and my mother had died in a forgotten and lost age of the world. Despite that I’d met them both four years ago, deep in of the Unreal

    “I know it’s a crazy idea. We can’t go back to the shores of Oblivion. I’d just like to share this with them.” I said. Jin and I could go almost anywhere, but the far ends of the Unreal, where all reality, even dreams, gave way to nothingness, that was a place even we couldn’t venture to lightly.

    “I’d like that too. I thought they moved on though?” Jin said. The last we’d seen them, they’d been together but where they’d been heading had been unclear, except that it was somewhere I couldn’t follow.

    “I know. It’s just a crazy thought.” I shrugged. Jin’s family would be plenty for me.

    She kissed me quickly on the lips, brushing away the melancholy of my words.

    “I wouldn’t be much of a dream lord if I couldn’t make crazy wishes come true would I?” she said.

    “I can’t ask you to do that though.” I said, shaking my head.

    “You don’t have to. Do you remember Pen?” she asked.

    “Yes, he was the first dream lord you met, wasn’t he?” I asked in return.

    “Actually just a remnant of one. He went into the Parliament’s research division after a teaching for a little while. He’s back to teaching now and Professor Haffrun recommended him as my mentor.”

    “Is that good?” I asked. I knew they’d parted well and had remained loosely in touch, but I didn’t have a sense of how talented a mentor Pen might be.

    “I think so. He knows a lot, and he knows me well enough to not start me off with baby steps. In fact, the first project he’s given me is to pick somewhere that I would consider ‘dangerous’ and we’ll work out a plan for how to approach it safely.” she said.

    “I don’t think he meant Oblivion.” I said uncertainly.

    “Then this will be a good lesson for him to provide better parameters on his projects won’t it.” she said with an evil grin.

    “I assume there’s going to be some oversight on this?” I asked, wondering what sort of insanity I was letting my beloved wander into.

    “All vetted by the Parliament, meaning in this case Professor Haffrun.” she assured me. That eased my worries. However crazy Jin might be, she’d never managed to weasel her way into anything truly dangerous under the Professor’s watchful eye.

    “Still, you don’t have to…” I started to say, but she put a finger on my lips to cut me off.

    “Give me a letter for them. Just tell them what you’d like. You’re right, I probably won’t see them, but if I do, I’ll make sure they get it and they know that you’re still thinking about them.” she said.

    I sighed and relaxed.

    “Thank you.”

    “How about you? Have you gotten your first assignment yet?” Jin asked.

    “Yeah, my mentor is a woman named ‘Wry’. I think she comes from a world like this. Our first assignment is safeguarding a diplomat who’s trying to negotiate a peace between two parallel worlds.” I said.

    “That doesn’t sounds too bad.” Jin said.

    “The one problem is that the diplomat is the one who started the war in the first place.” I said.

    “I take back my evaluation. Do you think you’ll be ok?” Jin asked.

    “Wry has said I’m along to learn etiquette and poise. Supposedly if there’s any fighting to be done, she’ll handle it.”

    “Do you think she’ll be able to?”

    “I’m not sure. She was hard to get a read on. Either she’s kind of delusional or she’s really good at hiding her full power.” I admitted.

    “If you need a hand…” Jin said, and ran her fingers over the pink ring she’d given me.

    “The same for you.” I said, resting my right hand over her left. I felt both of our rings beating with a soft warmth. Together.

    I’d been afraid of losing her. I’d been afraid of what I’d become without her. I could still lose her, and I could still become something terrible, but I wasn’t afraid anymore. Wherever we were, no matter how many worlds lay between us, we would never truly be apart, and as long as we were together, nothing was impossible for us.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 32

   Endings aren’t always fun. Sometimes they’re last chance we’ll have to do something. Sometimes they’re about saying goodbye to those we’d rather not be parted from. Even with being able to make the impossible real though, I had to bow to one greater reality: sooner or later everything needs to end.

    For as much as I’d felt stifled by Earth Glass, as our time there came to a close I found myself feeling strangely wistful for it. ‘The Amazing Jin’ had to deal a world that was far more limiting than my own, but it still felt pretty cool being her. When I left Earth Glass for good, she’d disappear. She’d still be a part of me, but no matter how much people on Earth Glass looked for her, they’d never discover where she went. In a sense, that felt like a fitting legacy for her. One final, unsolvable mystery to spur the imagination of those who learned about her.

    “We’re going to be landing in about a minute”, Way said over the intercom. “How are our passengers doing?”

    “I don’t understand why they’re all still asleep?” Madelaine said as I opened my eyes and looked around the Brotherhood’s sacrifice chamber. She was referring to the members of the Brotherhood who were dozing soundly (though not particularly comfortably).

    “What we’ll tell the police is that I used a slow acting knockout gas to disable them.” I said.

    “But what really happened?” she asked.

    “That’s a difficult and dangerous question to answer.” I said. Once we stepped off the airship, reality would reflect that they’d been disabled by a knockout gas that didn’t affect the abductees due to the presence of the cults other drugs that were in their system. Until then however, they were asleep because I said they were asleep.

    Technically we’d succeeded in keeping Madelaine’s power in check. That meant explaining to her how the Dreamlit world worked was something the official auditors would have to decide on. In practice though, based on the surprise I had in store for her, I was pretty sure she’d be figuring things out herself if the auditors didn’t tell her first.

    “I think I know something about answers like that.” Madelaine said with a laugh. “What does the society that you’re with call themselves?”

    “Society?” I asked with a mischievous sparkle in my eye, clearly playing dumb. I hadn’t admitted that I knew she was part of the “Scribes”, or that I knew how much the documentation we had would help the Scribes in dismantling the Brotherhood’s world world organization. I had just told her of the contents of an interesting book I’d read that contained Smythe’s name and those of his associates. I explained that it was how we’d known where she was and what Smythe was up to. I also let her know that, since I didn’t have her address, I had the book delivered to Guy McIntyre’s apartment and that I was sure he’d have it for her the next time she saw him.

    “Looks like there’s quite a crowd waiting for us.” Way said over the intercom.

    “Who’s there?” Madelaine asked.

    “Way radioed ahead to the police. It seems that there was a series of arson attempts which were instigated by Mr. Smythe. One of his men provided reams of testimony and evidence to that effect. Several of his associates are also wanted in conjunction with a number of felonies, including the near fatal shooting of a police officer.” I said. “And, I had her call your boss too, so he should be there as well.

    “My boss?” she asked, confused as to who I could mean. She, and just a few others in her secret society, knew that her nominal boss, Guy McIntyre, didn’t really exist. He was a convenient fiction, who’d allowed her to operate outside the boundaries that had been placed on her by gender and age. He also served as another mask to hide her from the Brotherhood’s attentions. All in all a very handy gentleman to have around. That’s why I’d stolen him.

    Any magician worth their spotlight can make someone disappear. The real trick was making them reappear somewhere no one expected.

    As we landed and the police stormed on board, one additional fellow came with them. Dapper and surprisingly young for a multi-millionaire, Guy McIntyre greeted Madelaine Deckard with a warm hug and the sort of relieved joy that was entirely natural for someone discovering that their employee and friend had not come to an ugly and untimely end.

    For her part, Madelaine was wide-eyed and speechless.

    It took the better part of two hours to get things sorted out with the police, during which time “Guy” kept up a steady stream of pleasant small talk about his unexpected vacation to Switzerland and the discovery that the very airship we were sitting in had been purloined by the Brotherhood from one of his European companies.

    Of course his paperwork on that matter was impeccable and, since they were inside a patch of reality I controlled, the police had no problem accepting it and graciously returning the good Mr. McIntyre’s stolen property to him on the spot.

    Outside, I felt Earth Glass pitching a fit at how unrealistic that was. Happily, I was able to tell it to go stuff itself. The inside of the airship was my world, so it followed my rules. For a little while longer anyways.

    “I don’t understand any of this! Who is he?” Madelaine asked after the police, the Brotherhood and the abductees had left the ship.

    “Am I not the spitting image of your boss?” asked ‘Guy McIntyre’.

    “Yes, but no. I mean, you look exactly as I’ve described him, but you’re not…I mean he’s not real.” Madelaine stammered.

    “Neither am I. Though I’m hoping to change that with your help.” he said.

    “Think of him as an actor whom I’ve hired to play the role of Guy McIntyre that you came up with. You’ll find he’s more or less a perfect match for what you had in mind for your boss.” I explained.

    “But I don’t understand why?” Madelaine asked.

    “Remember how I said I broke something that should never have been broken? Guy here happens to be an expert at fixing that sort of thing. You could say it’s how we met.” I said.

    “Yes, well it’s a gift. I must say I find this role to be delightful too. So much better than being a monster under the bed.” Guy said.

    “You’ll need to stay with the dirigible for a while I’m afraid.” I said.

    “Yes, until things are mended. It shouldn’t take long though, and I expect the world will be happier if I don’t suddenly give up my reclusive ways as an immediate reaction to all this.” he said.

    He surveyed the tiny area that was going to be the extent of his kingdom.

    “What do you say Madelaine? Would you like to take a dirigible tour of the world with me? I could be a great deal of help to you.”

    “This is madness.” she said, but there was a faint smile burbling up from within her.

    “Sometimes you want to run from madness, other times its a good idea to embrace it. I’ll leave it to you two to decide which sort of occasion this is.” I said, as I turned to leave.

    I paused at the door to the private chamber and turned back to look at the two of them. If she accepted him, Guy would be able to make sure that Madelaine’s powers as a dreamweaver didn’t have to be suppressed and wouldn’t endanger the world. On her part she’d be able to help him gradually become part of the reality of Earth Glass. How that all played out though was up to them.

    “Mr. McIntyre.” I said before I left the room, “This ship is now yours. Sail her to good skies.”

    And with that I let go of the fractured reality of Earth Glass and gave the burden over to the former monster-under-the-bed turned wealthy philanthropist.

    Outside the ship, I found Way and Kari waiting for me.

    “Your shoulder looks a lot better.” Kari noticed.

    “Your head too.” Way observed.

    “Yeah, turns out they were just flesh wounds that bled a lot. Nasty scratches but nothing serious.” I said. We all chuckled at Earth Glass’s annoyance at that. Healing myself while we were in the airship may have been a little out of line but I felt it was forgivable after everything I’d gone through.

    “I got a call from a friend of ours.” Kari said, meaning Professor Haffrun. “I’ve got to go to meet with her. She said she needed an official report on what had happened as soon as I could manage it.”

    “Do you need any backup?” I asked.

    “No, she said she wanted to talk to me alone.” Kari replied.

    Which meant we’d each be getting our own personal debriefing of the events of the past few days. That was sure to be fun.

    “Did she have any messages for us?” Way asked.

    “Yeah. She’ll talk to you later, but she wanted me to give you a heads up that the start times of your apprenticeships have been moved up. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad sign though?” she said.

    I didn’t either.

    On the one hand, we’d saved another world which was generally counted as a good thing. On the other hand the manner in which we’d saved it was sure to raise a few eyebrows. The accelerated date for our apprenticeships could be a sign that they wanted us under advanced supervision as fast as possible.

    When I looked inside I couldn’t tell how I felt about that. Three weeks with Way had felt like far too little time. The prospect of that being even shorter left me feeling queasy. On the other hand, there couldn’t be much chance that they’d saddle us with mediocre mentors after this. If nothing else they’d have to be concerned about us corrupting our mentors if they weren’t our equals or better.

    For myself, I didn’t care too much about the issue of who would be instructing me. I wanted a good teacher but I knew I could get by with whoever was assigned. For Way though, I wanted the best they had. She had so much promise as a guardian, it would be a crime to saddle her with someone who couldn’t help her develop. I called myself ‘The Amazing Jin’ here, but the truth was that she was the one was truly amazing.

    “Want to head back to my home?” I asked her once Kari had left.

    We were sitting on one of the piers near when the dirigible had landed, dangling our legs over the edge as we watched the sun slowly set.

    “Not just yet.” Way said.

    “Oh?” I asked, turned to look at her. She was facing the sunset but her eyes were closed.

    “I have a question for you, but there are somethings I should say first.” she said.

    “We can talk more easily back home can’t we?” I asked, missing the added layers of dream speech that would let me feel what she was feeling.

    “We can. And I want to talk to you there too, but I want to do this here because all we have here is the words. Here, they’re as real as they can be and I want you to know that everything I say, every word, is real.” she said.

    I looked at her silently. My own words were lost for the moment. I didn’t know what she was going to say, so I didn’t know how I could respond. I paused for a breath and searched inside for anything to hold onto and what I found was her.

    I thought of my sister, I thought of the courage she’d shown. Whatever Way said, I knew it was going to change things between us. That terrified me, I didn’t want things to change. Or at least a part of me didn’t. Looking inside to whatever little spark of courage I could find, I found that I didn’t want to stay in stasis either. I wanted us to grow.

    Everything needs to end, but the end of who we were offered the hope of becoming who we could be.

    “Ok.” I breathed, accepting whatever was to come.

    “I’ve been worried about the apprenticeship.” she began. “No, that’s not quite right. I’ve been worried about being away from you.”

    I nodded, not wanting to interrupt her.

    “You were there for me from the beginning. You pulled me back from becoming something truly awful. I am who I am today thanks to you.” she said. “We’ve been together since then, and in a sense that’s been my entire life, but it’s nowhere near long enough.”

    I nodded again, feeling my throat growing tight.

    “I want to spend so much more time with you, but at the same time, I can’t imagine keeping you all to myself. It scares me that I would, in a heartbeat, pass up everything else to settle into a life with just you. You can be the sun and the moon and the stars and everything beyond them and yet a part of me would keep you caged in my heart if it meant keeping you close to me.” she said.

    I felt tears rolling down my cheeks and a laugh fighting its way free of my lips. I knew all too well what she meant, she was saying the words that had been chorusing in my heart for weeks.

    “I wasn’t sure about even talking about this. I didn’t want to make you worry about me and I didn’t want to risk holding you back. I was dithering over it but then I talked with your mother and she told me I had to. So, there it is.” she said and went quiet, looking down at the waves below us.

    I reached over and took her hands in mine. There were tears in her eyes as well as in mine.

    “Everything you said, every word, I want to say back to you.” I told her. “Four years or a lifetime, I haven’t had nearly enough time with you. You’ve inspired me, you’ve supported me, you’ve kept me sane when I could have lost myself so many times now. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I want it to hold you, with me, forever.”

    Way smiled and laughed like I had.

    “But at the same time, I can’t bear the thought of you missing out on growing into the woman I see in you. You are so much more than the just the girl I want to spend all of my life with. You are fire and light and the storm and the new day dawning. I’m greedy. I want not just you as you are but you as all you can be too, and I know for that, I can’t ever hold you back.” I said.

    We were silent for a long heart beat.

    We’d never spoken like this before. We’d always just known that we were happy being with one another because of what we shared in dream speech. Way had been right though. Putting our thoughts into words made a difference. It made me think about what I’d been feeling for a long time. It made it real.

    “I love you Jin.” Way said, looking as vulnerable and lost as I’d ever seen her.

    “I love you too Way.” I replied and kissed her.

    The sun had finished setting by the time we broke off the kiss and in the early evening light I looked on the person who would always hold the keys to my heart. I’d never seen and never would see anyone else as beautiful.

    “You said you had a question for me too?” I asked after a moment more of drinking Way in with my eyes.

    “I do.” Way said as she motioned for me to stand. I did so, and gave her a puzzled look. Most questions don’t require particular postures.

    Then she went down on one knee and I remembered the one question that did have a traditional form.

    “Even if we have to be separated for a while, I want a part of me to be with you always.” she said and drew her hands away from her chest to offer me a band of golden light. “Will you marry me?”

    I couldn’t speak at first because I couldn’t breathe. Inside my head every voice I had screamed one word in unison, so loudly that I thought the Earth itself was going to ring with it.

    I reached forward to touch the ring, a piece of her heart and soul, and forced my breaths into rapid inhalations so that I could manage to respond.

    “Always and everywhere.”

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 31

    Being fashionably late is fine for parties, but for rescues it leaves a little to be desired. I kept that in mind as I climbed down ladders and walkways that led through the interior structure of the Brotherhood’s enormous dirigible.

    Most flying ships don’t have rooms built within the gas bag as far as I was aware. The Brotherhood had theirs specially built to serve as a “private chamber” for their rituals. That made it one of the worst places to try to face them. The heart of their power.

    I knew what waited for me in a general sense as I approached the closed room. There would be at least thirty of the Brotherhood in addition to the thirteen sacrificial victims. The cultists would be armed with a minimum of their ceremonial swords, though several would also be carrying firearms as well.

    Assuming I was still early enough, their victims would be alive and would immediately become hostages if I looked like a threat to Brotherhood.

    I’d expected that there’d be guards outside the room and was surprised when there were none. On consideration though that made sense. The only people on the airship were trusted members of the Brotherhood. The ritualists were all inside the sacrifice chamber and the ones who weren’t part of the ritual were in the regular areas of the ship where they could guard against an aerial attack. In the event one of the victims got unruly the ritualists would be able to call the other guards for backup easily enough, so why have someone guarding a door that was only closed to prevent distractions from entering the room?

    If I’d been been able to retain my gear when I landed, I could have planted a few pyrotechnic charges and some smoke bombs to make a properly dramatic entrance (the dirigible was filled with Helium rather than Hydrogen, so fire wasn’t much of a worry). Cultists are a diverse lot, but enough of them tend towards the paranoia and superstition that a bit a of theater can have a profound impact on them.

    Instead I very quietly opened the door and walked in. Without fanfare or saying anything, I walked down the small row in between the assembled cultists and over to the sacrifices, who were chained together. It wasn’t until I started picking the lock on the first girl’s manacles that anyone got over the shock of seeing me wander in. I’d expected that. People have a hard time processing things that are out of context for what they were expecting.

    “What are you doing?” the leader of the ritual demanded. He was wearing the ever-cliched, “form-covering black robes”, etched with “mystic” sigils in “blood red” thread. His face was obscured by both a hood and a mask. For someone who, in theory, held all the power in the world within this room, his clothes spoke of a deep and abiding fear of being caught.

    I turned to him, and blinked as though I was deeply confused by his words.

    “Unlocking these manacles.” I said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.

    The Brotherhood outnumbered me forty to one as it turned out. Any two of them could have captured me immediately, but none of them moved. I wasn’t part of the script of their little play and so there was no protocol for how to handle me. That indecisiveness wouldn’t last long but it was kind of fun to watch for the few moments while they were befuddled.

    “YOU!” the leader screamed and I recognized his voice.

    “Hello Cranston. Or should I call you ‘Mr. Smythe’ while you’re in your make-believe clothes?” I asked.

    “Kill her.” he said, confusion and uncertainty turning to anger and savagery as they so often do in men like him.

    “No.” I said. Half the men in the room were armed with pistols. At my word, twenty pistols misfired. For the lucky ones the guns merely jammed. For the less fortunate, they exploded.

    It was beyond a one-in-a-billion coincidence for that to happen and everyone present knew it. The world fractured hard in response to that. One more push, one more unlikely event that I demanded to happen and reality would crumble around us.

    The Brotherhood couldn’t know the danger they were in, but they could see that a score of pistols misfiring at my command was something to be concerned about.

    “I don’t know what kind of trick you’ve pulled on our guns, but you’re not getting out of this room alive.” Smythe said.

    “You’ve searched for magic your whole life Smythe. I would have thought you’d appreciate the chance to see the real thing rather than this farce?” I said as I released the first girl’s hands and let her manacles fall to the floor.

    “I’ll get the rest of you out in a minute.” I told the other people who were chained up. “Apparently Cranny wants to make an issue out of this.”

    “Who are you?” Smythe demanded. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I knew they were wide with rage and fear in equal measures. I was being too calm, and things were too weird. Plus I’d vanished before. His superstitions were telling him I was a divine agent of retribution for his life of evil or something like that. I figured I had about thirty seconds before he decided to test that hypothesis by ordering his men to attack again.

    “Jin. I’ve told you my name before. Don’t make me tell you again.” I warned him as I walked casually around the low area of the room the manacled people were in. The sacrifice chamber was a large hexagon with a sunken, circular area in the middle of the room. The circle was about three feet lower than the rest of the room. Just enough to put the people in it below everyone else without providing any cover for them.

    At one end of the circle there was a set of risers that lead to a podium set above the rest of the room. That’s where Smythe was standing. At the other end of the circle, the people the Brotherhood had abducted were chained to the wall. In between the two, there was a rough stone altar. It was blackened by bloodstains that had been laid down over the course of many years.

    “You are a stage magician. You know nothing of real power. I don’t know how you got here or why you have come but if you thought to rescue these cattle then you are as doomed as they are.” Smythe said.

    “Do you think this is power Smythe? Destroying lives?” I asked.

    “The power over life and death is the greatest power of them all.” Smythe said, fervor rising in his voice.

    “No. It’s not.” I said. “Even a child can end a life with a gun. Destruction is easy.”

    “You think so, but so many of the cattle we cull would disagree. Even if we armed these wretches, they would not be able to take a life, not even to free themselves.”

    “You poor deluded idiot. That’s not a sign of their weakness. It’s a revelation of the strength of their humanity.”

    “The strong are the ones who survive. What you call ‘humanity’ dooms them to death at the hands of those who wield real power.” Smythe insisted.

    “We are all doomed to die. That’s not what matters. What matters is how we chose to live.”

    “What matters is what we make of the world and only the strong have the power to change it.” Smythe said. I was surprised he was playing along with this and debating with me. I guessed that the trick with the pistols had rattled him more than I’d imagined it would.

    Or Madelaine Deckard was helping me.

    I felt outwards and sensed the fractures I’d made tearing slowly open at the force she was unconsciously putting on them.

    “The smallest pebble can start an avalanche. Even one voice can change the world, no matter how small, or alone it might seem to be.” I replied.

    “We shall see how your voice can change the world then. Chain her to the altar and make her scream!” Smythe commanded.

    I laughed. It wasn’t a comforting sound. Neither was the predatory grin that twisted itself across my lips. I was so very tired of holding back. Of putting up with Earth Glass. The moment they laid a hand on me, things were going to end in fire. Black. Unending. Fire.

    I felt a hand touch mine and looked down.

    Madelaine Deckard, still chained up, was looking at me with pleading eyes.

    The Brotherhood had no idea of the danger they were in, but, on some level, Madelaine did.

    I looked at her, and sighed. There were still good people here. It was a foregone conclusion that the world was going to crumble, at least locally, but that didn’t mean that I could give up on the people who were here.

    “No.” I said again. At my word, the burly men who had risen from their seats to apprehend me slipped and fell into the circular pit, breaking their knee caps and shin bones.

    It was the final straw. The world shattered.

    And I caught it.

    It took an impossible amount of power to hold each microscopic fragment of the world together. That wasn’t a problem. I’m an impossible girl and power is not a limiting factor for me. Holding the fragments together was the only way to prevent the fracture from spreading any further than the room we were in, so I didn’t have a choice except to keep them there. The problem was, the moment I stopped focusing on the holding the room together, reality would vanish and the fractures would spread over the rest of the planet.

    “Oh God! What are you!?” Smythe cried over the screams of pain of the men who’d been crippled by their falls. The rest of the Brotherhood had risen from their chairs but were frozen in place. The ones who’d been aggressive enough to follow Smythe’s orders were in obvious agony and unable to move, but there wasn’t anywhere the others could run to either.

    “I’m one small voice.” I told him.

    “Guards! Men! There’s an intruder in the ritual chamber!” Smythe called into an intercom on the podium.

    “I’m afraid your men are indisposed.” Way replied over the intercom.

    “What…what have you done?” Smythe asked, fighting a losing battle to keep his terror out of his voice.

    “Something terrible.” I told him.

    “What do you mean?” Madelaine asked.

    “I broke something that should never have been broken.”

    “Can you put it back together?” she asked, following the metaphor if not fully understanding what I meant.

    “Not like it was.” I explained. My first instinct said that the best thing I could do would be to shatter the rest of the Dreamlit barrier around Earth Glass and then reimagine the world in my own image. It would mean forever changing the fates of everyone who lived there and limiting them to the sorts of futures that I could conceive of. It would also mean that the world would change drastically from what it had been.

    “Die!” Smythe said. He was mad with rage and fear and, I think, miffed that I wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. I didn’t cause his gun to explode. It simply clicked on empty cylinders.

    “Looking for these?” I asked him, tossing the bullets from his revolver in my hand.

    That enraged him further. Drawing his ritual knife from his robe, he leapt off the podium at me and slammed the blade into my chest.

    I smiled back at him at pointed at the hilt. He looked at it and noticed the lack of blood where he had “stabbed” me.

    “Trick knife” I said as he pulled the hilt back to discover that the blade had collapsed into the handle.

    He threw the worthless knife away and reach for my throat with his bare hands.

    I stopped him with a finger on his forehead. He froze in mid-lunge, still as a statue.

    “Pressure point.” I said and then added “Not really.”

    I snapped my fingers and the manacles fell off of the people who’d been abducted.

    “I’m sorry that took so long.” I said.

    “What’s going to happen to us?” one of the abductees asked.

    “We’re going to get you home safe and sound.” I said.

    “And what about what’s broken?” Madelaine asked, aware of how wrong things still were.

    I thought about that. If I spent years at it, I might be able to slowly patch the over the hole I’d punched into the world. It wouldn’t be exactly the same, and I’d need to stay in this affected area for the whole time, but it would limit the damage to this one area. It would make the dirigible something like the Flying Dutchman – an exceptional bit of weirdness in an otherwise very plain world. I’d miss out on my apprenticeship and I’d wind up as a recluse who couldn’t leave the dirigible, but inside it things would be however I wanted them to be.

    As deals went, it was kind of crummy, but sometimes we’re stuck with the cards we’re dealt.

    My world would be no bigger than the inside of the airship. It was going to be pretty boring, living the life of a recluse, but at least my friends could visit me when they were on vacation.


    A recluse?

    I felt a wild, insane joy tear through me.

    Sometimes we’re stuck with the cards we’re dealt, but even the lowliest magician in the world knows at least a few card tricks.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 30

    Our senses tell us what is real. Wind singing around us, the blazing noonday light of the sky above the clouds, the roar of an engine pushed to its maximum capacity. All of these told me that I was in a plane sailing through the air above Los Diablos. Beneath me, I felt worn leather that held the warmth of the sun and covered the hard seat at the front of the small aircraft Kari had managed to “liberate” from an flying circus that just happened to be in town.

    We were pushing the edge of the envelope in more ways than one. From overdriving the plane’s engine in an attempt to reach Madelaine Deckard in time, to the various “coincidences” we’d each demanded of the world. I could feel in my bones that something was going to break very soon. The trick was going to be making sure it was the right thing.

    “I see the dirigible!” Way shouted back to us from her perch on the wing, her voice barely carrying over the rush of the wind and the engine’s desperate whine.

    The plane Kari had pilfered for us was a two seater. She’d included “flying experience” in her identity on Earth Glass (or at least she retroactively bullied the world into accepting that she could do it) so she was pilot. That meant she got the back seat of the plane.

    I was still nursing a more or less non-functional arm thanks to Madelaine shooting me, so I got the forward seat and Way got to play wing walker. Our plan, as much as we had a plan, bordered on insanity. We knew the dirigible carried a compliment of well armed snipers. Any attempt to dock with it in flight would result in them shooting us to pieces. The snipers were located under the dirigibles balloon though, which meant they didn’t have a line of sight to fire at people descending on them from above.

    “They’ve seen us too. They’re launching their escort!” I shouted back as I saw two small planes drop from the underside of the dirigible and roar to life.

    The doctor I’d kidnapped from the Brotherhood had warned me about them but, since our options were limited by time and how much we could reasonably push the world to accept, we had to make due with Kari’s piloting skills to deal with them.

    With our goal being the dirigible itself, Kari pulled us into a climb to buy as much advantage over the small fighter planes as possible. The Brotherhood’s planes were little more than high performance engines with guns and wings though so they were able to rise far faster than even the stunt plane we were flying could.

    “Hang on tight!” Kari yelled. My stomach tried to turn itself inside out as she flipped the plane over so that we were upside down and then began diving towards the balloon.

    The two fighters that were rising to meet us inverted as well and tried to match our dive speed. They had better engines but we had a lot more momentum by the time with passed them. As they turned to pursue us, the fighters lit up their machine guns, the heavy rattle of automatic weapon fire rising above the screams of the engines.

    Hitting an enemy plane in a situation like this took expert gunnery skills. It also required that your targets be incapable of bending the laws of chance to suit their needs. The shots came close and even clipped our plane in a few places but none hit anything vital.

    “We need at least a thousand feet!” Way called back, reminding Kari before we dove to low.

    “We’re getting there.” Kari called back, barrel rolling us out of the path of more enemy fire. To say that having the straps dig into my shoulders was painful was like saying that walking on broken glass would give you a few scratches. I clamped my eyes shutter against the pain, growled some of the more colorful curses that I’d learned under my breath and did my best to remain conscious.

    “About 1500 feet, get ready to let go.” Kari said.

    My plan had seemed like a good idea while we were on the nice, stable, ground with a distinct lack of bullets zinging around us. As I unbuckled the restraints and felt Kari pull back into an ascent I began to wonder if perhaps a little more planning had been in order.

    Like any good magic trick though, the key to the plan lay in misdirection. From the point of view of the fighters tailing us it looked like Way and I had fallen out of the plane and were plummeting to our doom as Kari raced skywards seeking a position above them again.

    From my position, it looked like Way and I had intentionally leapt to our doom. My hope was that the fighters wouldn’t blast us full of holes before returning to finish Kari. I did my best impression of a panicking, falling girl for several hours to help encourage them in thinking we weren’t worth pursuing. Or at least it felt like several hours. In reality it was probably a second and a half at most before the fighters both peeled upwards in pursuit of Kari.

    That’s when Way and I popped our parachutes.

    A thousand feet isn’t actually that much room for a parachute jump. By the time the chutes opened we had precious little time to correct our course. Since our options were “manage to land on the dirigible” or “float gracefully past it and down into the sniper’s line of fire”, we were rather motivated to “stick the landing”.

    My legs took the shock of the landing well enough, but getting out of the parachutes harness before it dragged me off the top of the dirigible proved to be problematic. I pulled the quick release cord, but I wasn’t able to move my bad arm well enough to get it untangled from the lines. I felt the wind catch the parachute and lift me up by my bad shoulder and couldn’t suppress the scream of pain that followed.

    The pain was almost enough to make me miss the sense of weightlessness as I began falling over the side. Tangled in the lines of my chute and only able to hold on with an arm that was barely functional left me with no cards to play to save myself. Gravity was a very specific and very inflexible rule on Earth Glass. No amount of pleading, nudging or coaxing was going to convince the world to make an exception for me on the “falling to my death” question.

    I saw Way fighting out of her parachute and desperately leaping for me. This time she was going to be too late though. We’d landed too far apart and I’d been blown off the top too quickly. There was genuine panic and concern in her eyes as I slid out of her grasp and started accelerating towards the ocean below.

    Rationally, it was silly. The fall might kill “The Amazing Jin” but I would be fine. “The Amazing Jin” was only one tiny part of who I was. One name I wore, one version of me out of a countless multitude. As I fell though I understood why Way looked so scared. It was easy. I just thought of how I would feel if she was falling away from me.

    Each part of us is small, but even the little bits matter to those who care about us.

    Somehow that thought reassured me. I felt a fierce calm spread through heart. This wasn’t how I had to let things end. However it looked, I wasn’t actually powerless, and it did matter to someone that I wind up ok here.

    I thought of the other perils I’d faced in the last few years.  It would almost be embarrassing to die of a little fall like this. If the world wanted to kill me, it was going to have to take a whole lot better of a shot at me to get the job done. Gravity might suck, but even the planetary mass of Earth Glass wasn’t enough to bring me down if I had my friends to think about.

    With a wild scramble I wriggled myself out of the cords of the parachute and let myself fall freely. I bounced off the dirigible’s side and pitched myself clear of it with nothing below me but the wide blue ocean. I had nothing to hold me up except pixie dust and happy thoughts so I plummeted like rock.

    Even outside of Neverland though, happy thoughts can be a potent tool. One tiny nudge on the world was all it took to bring Kari and the two fighter planes screaming around from underneath the dirigible.

    It was a million-to-one chance that one of the fighters would wind up underneath me at the precise location and speed needed to catch me. The world screamed at the notion until I pointed out that Kari was watching us and had a perfect spatial sense. Its how she was able to dodge two pilots in superior planes. It also meant that calculating how to put one of them under me was a piece of cake.

    It wasn’t quite a good enough story to get me into the cockpit of the plane, but I was able to grab onto the tail as it flew by. As it turns out having a girl, even one of my unimposing size, hanging on to the rudder and elevators makes flying rather difficult. If the girl happens to be familiar with flying and decides to make the matter worse, say by forcing the plane onto a collision course with a dirigible, even a fairly seasoned pilot can get a bit unnerved.

    The Brotherhood pilot tried shouting curses at me and when that didn’t work he tried to turn around and knock me off. When that failed, he jumped out of the plane himself.

    I saw his parachute open as I forced the plane into a pure climb that quickly stalled out its engine. The climb put me just far enough above the dirigible that I was able to fling myself clear as the plane pitched over and began an unmanned power dive into the ocean below.

    Unencumbered by a parachute this time, I rolled with the landing on the top of the dirigible and came to my feet an arm’s length from Way.

    She looked at me, blinking in surprise. I looked back, smiling a silly grin. That whole maneuver had left my shoulder a blinding mass of pain, but the endorphin rush of still being alive was quite sufficient to make the pain take a back seat for the moment.

    I thought she was going to turn and get on with the mission, but instead she lunged forward and grabbed me into a tight hug.

    “Don’t do that again.” she said softly into my ear.

    “But…” I started to say before she silenced me with a kiss.

    “Please.” she added as she broke off the kiss. She was smiling too.

    “Ok.” I agreed, an icy fear melting in me that I hadn’t been aware was there.

    We stood there for a moment longer before pulling apart.

    “They’ll know we’re here after that stunt.” I said.

    “Let move then.” Way agreed.

    There was an access door on the top of the dirigible that led to the inner compartments that balloon was inflated around. It was locked, which seemed weird given the lack of burglars one would expect to be infiltrating a dirigible. On the other hand we were dealing with a fairly paranoid group who did have people that were out to get them.

    Like Way and I for example. Unfortunately for them, the locks they’d chosen only slowed us down for around ten seconds before we were inside the dirigible.

    “I’ll take care of the guards.” Way said. We knew from the doctor that they’d be stationed in the publicly accessible areas of the dirigible. The secret compartment inside the balloon area was where the ritual was being conducted.

    “And I’ll get Smythe and his inner circle.” I said.

    “You lost your pack, do you need another weapon?” Way asked, offering one of the guns we’d managed to swipe off someone.

    “Nah. I’m just going to talk to them.” I told her.

    “Try to to leave something for the police to identify them with then.” Way suggested, serious but smiling even so.

    “We’ll see how merciful I’m feeling.” I said. In truth, I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with Smythe and the rest of the Brotherhood’s inner circle, and there was a part of me that just wanted to go back to the top of the dirigible but I could feel the walls of reality groaning louder and louder under the strain of keeping Madelaine’s power in check.

    “We should go take care of things.” Way said.

    “I know. But it won’t be easy.” I said.

    “Yeah.” Way agreed, and on that note we parted, each heading towards where we needed to be to save the world.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 29

    Bracing for a battle is difficult to do well. The natural tendency for most people is to stiffen up, physically and mentally. Watch an experienced fighter before they step into the ring though. They don’t go in clenched and rigid. To weather both physical and psychological blows it’s much better to stay loose. Part of the reason is because being able to roll with a punch can take away a lot of its force. Even more than that though is the fact that when we freeze up we’re directing our energy against ourselves. The strength we use to hold ourselves rigid is wasted and turned against us when we take a hit.

    I reminded myself of all that and breathed out slowly to force myself to relax.

    “What do you mean Guy McIntyre never existed?” I asked Kari.

    “I went over my original notes and then did some checking. ‘Guy McIntyre’ has set up dozens of redevelopment deals like this. He’s a great philanthropist too. ‘He’ always works through his secretaries and lawyers though. No one’s ever met the man.” she said.

    “Why is that surprising?” Way asked. “We knew he was reclusive.”

    “When I say ‘no one has met him’, that includes the teachers at the school he is listed as graduating from, the doctor of the small town he was supposedly born in, and Steven McIntyre, his supposedly older brother.” Kari said.

    “How did you find all that out?” I asked.

    “It wasn’t easy. The records on him are mostly hidden. I had to use ‘verbal hypnosis’ to get people to talk. Plus I’m pretty sure I tripped a lot of alarms just looking into it.” she said. I knew her ‘verbal hypnosis’ was probably backed with a fair amount of dream magic and almost certainly strained the heck out of Earth Glass’ tolerance for ‘magic-like’ effects. If it got us information we needed though I wasn’t going to complain.

    “What do you mean?” Way asked.

    “I think someone setup fake records in order to ‘create him’. They needed a proxy they could act through who wouldn’t attract attention. The records were there in case anyone started snooping too hard. It was something for a detective to find that would buy McIntyre’s inventor time to get away.”

    “What kind of ‘alarms’ were there?” I asked.

    “Social ones. The people who worked at the places the records were kept all used the same phrase: ‘Do you need the records on Guy or Greg McIntyre?’ Once or twice could have been coincidence, but this was over a dozen sites.” she said.

    I had a flash of purely natural insight.

    “The Scribes!” I said.

    “Who?” Way asked.

    “When I was captured by the Brotherhood, Cranston Smythe kept me alive so he could interrogate me about the ‘Scribes’. As best I can guess, they’re another secret society, probably dedicated to stamping out people like the Brotherhood.” I said.

    I saw a light bulb go one over Way’s head.

    “The Night Warder was one of the Scribes too. That’s why they captured her.” she said.

    “Yeah, I think that fits well.” I agreed.

    “The question is: what was the Night Warder doing at the apartment that was rented in Guy McIntyre’s name?” Kari asked.

    “Oh, sorry, the Night Warder is Madelaine Deckard. I saw her out of her mask when I broke into his apartment.” I said. They both frowned at me in disbelief. I shrugged. I had a head wound and a throbbing headache so forgetting to mention a few key details like that seemed like a forgivable lapse.

    “That explains things. Very well in fact.” Kari said. I could see her gaze going distant, seeking out answers somewhere beyond the world or within herself.

    “So we have two secret societies who are war with one another. Madelaine Deckard is part of one of them and was using ‘Guy McIntyre’ as a persona to do her business dealings. Why would she need to do that though?” Way asked.

    “A couple of reasons I can think of. First women have less social position and power here. People don’t take them as seriously as men. Yet. ‘Guy McIntyre’ may have been the mask she needed to be able to play in world of high finance.” I said.

    “That doesn’t make sense to me, but I’ve seen enough of things here to believe it.” Kari said. The world she hailed from was a marvel of gender equality for a number of reasons, one of which being that spellcasting didn’t care what sort of chromosomes you had. Trying to tell a mage who could level a city that she was a second class citizen because of her gender wasn’t likely to end well for the misogynist in question.

    “The other advantage would be what Kari ran into. Anyone looking to strike at ‘Guy McIntyre’s’ work would go after him and ignore his ‘secretary’. We know the Brotherhood’s not shy about using assassins. Having them waste their time searching for a non-existent target would give Deckard the chance to strike back as the Night Warder.” I said.

    “That explains the Night Warder identity too then. It wasn’t meant as a general disguise. She specifically needed to avoid the Brotherhood’s notice.” Way said.

    “Unfortunately they have her now.” I said.

    “And she’s the dreamweaver we were worried about.” Way said.

    “And the fate weaving is accelerating.” Kari said. “When I cast it, I used Guy McIntyre as one of the principal anchors for it. Without him there, it’s spinning out of control.”

    “Can you ground it out?” I asked.

    “Yes, but the events are already moving too fast. If I cut the fateweaving we won’t have any idea where things will go.” Kari said.

    “So we ride it out. What other resolutions are there?” Way asked.

    “If everyone involved, Smythe, Deckard and Stone, dies the development deal will collapse and things will settle down on their own.” Kari said.

    “I don’t like that one. What else do we have?” I asked.

    “If Fairbanks burns to the ground, the development deal will go ahead and the Brotherhood will win. That would be a stable condition as well.” Kari said.

    “That sucks too. What are the win conditions for Stone and Deckard?” I asked.

    “If we decapitate the Brotherhood – take out their leadership and expose them to the world, Stone’s companies will pick up the redevelopment business on a tide of local sentiment. That’s not a stable state, he’ll have more power than he can handle and his criminal empire will grow too big to be ignored. I don’t think he’ll come to a good end and there’ll probably be a lot of people who get hurt along with him, but the world will survive.” she said.

    “And Madelaine Deckard?” Way asked.

    “She doesn’t have a win condition. She wasn’t bound by the initial fate weaving, she’s just part of the weave that was supposed to have looped around Guy McIntyre. Without him, that side effectively forfeits.” she said.

    “So all paths points to losing her?” I asked, turning the problem over in my head.

    “I think so. She’s our dreamweaver after all. At this point I don’t know that there’s any chance she’ll stay asleep and once she wakes up…” Kari trailed off.

    Once Madelaine Deckard woke up to her powers, she was going to be a danger to the entire world. Our “nicest” option would be to fake her death, kidnap her and never allow her to return to home. The other possibilities were ones I promised myself I wouldn’t allow.

    “We need to come at this from another angle.” I said. “The Brotherhood was terrified of the files that Shurman took from them getting out. Maybe if we found those that would provide us with a clue?”

    “Here you go!” Way said and pushed the books that were in front of her towards me.

    “We found them in the coat check room at the ruins of the Chimera Club.” Kari said.

    “It was Tiny’s idea.” Way said. “We were trying to figure out where Shurman would have stashed something that he wasn’t sure was important. Since it wasn’t here, and wasn’t at his apartment, and the only other place we knew he’d been was the Club, Tiny worked out that he might have dropped it with the girl who worked there. Apparently they knew each other.”

    “Wow. And they survived the fire too? Talk about a stroke of luck.” I said, sensing Way’s subtle hand at work in arguing that series of events into existence.

    “Stone’s got friends everywhere, even the fire department. The building burned, but a lot of it survived. Almost a shame for poor Eddie. The restoration will probably cost more than knocking the building down and putting up a new one.” she said.

    A lot of people thought Way was nice. I agreed with them. I also knew that they’d never been on her bad side though. Unless I missed my guess the city’s inspectors were going to find all sort of skeletons in Stone’s burned out closets when they came by to verify the damage that had been done.

    “The problem is the books are all in code.” Kari said.

    I smiled and threw a small booklet down on the table. It bore the Brotherhood of the Dragon’s logo.

    “What is…” Way started to ask and then stopped herself as she caught sight of my grin. “It’s the codebook. You picked up the translation book for the files while the Brotherhood had you.”

    “Yep. Met one of their doctors who wasn’t going to be needing it anymore.” I said.

    “What did you do to him?” Way asked.

    “Gave him a dose of his own medicine. Literally.” I said. “He’d developed a mind control drug, so I hit him with it and, eventually, told him to turn himself in to the police.”

    Way grinned back at me and looked like she was about to say something, before she stopped herself again.

    “How fast can we translate these?” Kari asked.

    “I think I can free read them. I memorized the cipher on the way over.” I said and gave Earth Glass a swift mental kick to prevent it from complaining about the absurdity of that. This was for its own good, which, thankfully, it seemed to agree with.

    The books which Shurman had stolen from them (and I still had to wonder how he’d managed that) turned out to be what we’d expected. First there was the Brotherhood’s roster, which Smythe hadn’t been concerned with our possessing. At a guess the Scribes probably already knew the Brotherhood’s cult identities and the roster didn’t make a connection between those names and the cultists’ real identities except in the encoded passwords that were unique to each cult member.

    Once their password was encoded in the book, the cultists could access Brotherhood resources via their cult name. Should the roster happen to fall into hands like ours, the most we could do would be to attack the cult’s resources. The cultists themselves were still hidden behind a veil of anonymity. Or so they thought. It wouldn’t take much of a fate weaving to power a forensic investigation that could tear that veil to shreds. A halfway clever Federal agent in possession of this roster could probably manage it with just a little push in the right direction in fact.

    The other volumes were the usual sort of insanity cults get up to. Worldly power was all well and good, but to make people do truly crazy things, you needed to promise them more. The other books held the details of the cults rituals, past, present, and future. The rituals were keys the cult believed they held to unlimited power.

    I’d seen books like the cult’s tomes before. On some worlds they were terrifying because of they could unleash unspeakable, and unstoppable horrors. Well mostly unstoppable, lots of ‘unstoppable’ things needed to find a new description after they met Way.

    On Earth Glass though the cult’s rituals were worse than that. There was no magic on Earth Glass. The rituals, the invocations, the summons, all of the spells that the books held. There was nothing to them. They were empty words. No matter how fervently the cultists believed in them. No matter what atrocities they committed, none of it would matter at all.

    Which meant that the litany of victims whose demise the books chronicled had all died for nothing more than human stupidity and greed. Name after name. Pictures in some cases. Before and after. Across hundreds of pages and multiple decades.

    They were a part of cult’s records of their sacrifices, along with the members who were owed their dues for taking part in the rituals as though each death added something to a ledger they would be free to draw from once their imaginary gods ruled the world.

    “Are you ok?” Way asked.

    I hadn’t noticed her get up and come over to my side. She put her arm around me and I felt the black rage that had been gathering in my heart subside to a steady burn.

    “There are good people here.” I said.

    Way nodded. She knew what I was saying. What I needed to remember. Its so easy in the face of real evil to want to eradicate it and everything it’s touched, even if that means burning down the world. For most people, the worst that feeling can do is cause them to hyperfocus on what’s wrong with the world. It can lock them into seeing only the bad and losing themselves to hate.

    For me, it could be a lot worse than that. I didn’t have to rail helplessly against the evils of the world.

    I could end it if I chose.

    On a world like Earth Glass though that would be a tragedy, so I had to remember that despite the horror that people did to each other here, there were things worth preserving as well. There were good people here and they deserved a chance to make their world a better place.

    “When is the next ritual taking place?” Kari asked.

    “It was supposed to be next month, but it looks like they’ve moved it up to today.” I said.

    “It’s the fate weaving at work.” Kari said.

    “Yeah. That’s not all either. The ritual calls for thirteen victims. Each has a specific role and is killed in a specific manner. The first to go is called ‘The Enemy on High’ and is supposed to represent the forces that oppose the Brotherhood. They usually get by with a proxy of some sort.” I said.

    “This year though they’ve got Madelaine. An actual enemy to use.” Way guessed.

    “They’re going to kill her.” Kari said. Her lips formed a tight line.

    “They’re going to try. There’s no way she’s going to stay asleep through that though.” I said.

    “Where are they? Where will they perform the ritual?” Way asked.

    “It says here they perform it ‘atop the clouds, above the seas of earth, below the sea of stars’. That’s gotta mean onboard their airship.” I said.

    “Any mention of when?” Kari asked.

    “When the brightest star is at its zenith and is cast into darkness.” I translated.

    “During an eclipse?” Kari asked.

    “No. You can’t move those up. I think it’s metaphorical. They have some chamber designed where they can simulate and eclipse probably.” I said.

    I got up and rocked my shoulders. My whole body hurt like I was dipped in pain. This was not going to fun.

    “Where are we going?” Kari asked.

    “You said there was no win condition for Madelaine Deckard?” I asked.

    “Yeah.” Kari agreed.

    “Then we’re going to go make one for her.”

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 28

    It’s difficult to see the good in people sometimes. We open ourselves to the chance of getting hurt badly when we chose to believe in someone. The truth though is that despite their immense capacity to harm us or let us down, other people are rarely as simple as “good” or “bad”.

    As the kidnapped day workers and I drove away from the Brotherhood’s HQ in a stolen truck, I tried to remind myself of that for one important reason. We still had the doctor with us. He’d been essential in sneaking our way out of the facility since he’d be able to convince the guards that the men had all received their “treatments” and that they didn’t have to check the truck (and thereby find me hiding in the back too).

    The doctor wasn’t a nice guy. He’d been involved in brainwashing hundreds of men and sending them off to murder thousands. There was a fairly easy argument to make that the world would be better off without him. The catch was, I’d made him a victim of his own formula. One dose from one of his own syringes had sent him into a drugged stupor that gave me close to total control over him.

    At the time it had been necessary, but as we drove safely away the question arose of what we were going to do with him? I knew the guys from Fairbanks island would have been fine with pitching him off a cliff into the ocean. That would have been the simplest answer and the safest. The dose of the mind control drug would wear off in less than a day, according to what the doctor had said when I questioned him on it. Giving a second dose to extend the duration was possible, but introduced the risk of inducing a stroke. The longer the dose was maintained the greater the risk of a stroke occurring.

    That meant that it would be kinder to throw him off a cliff and let the ocean take him than it would be to keep him under my control. Neither option was acceptable though. That’s why when we reached the street with Detective Shurman’s office, I had the doctor get out with me.

    “We’ve got forty five minutes before things start to burn.” I told the day workers.

    “Don’t worry. We’ll get our folks out.” one of the guys said.

    “Get everybody out. We don’t know who the Brotherhood kidnapped and drugged, but we know there’s a lot more of them than there are of you!” I said.

    “Don’t worry. We’ll pass the word.” the driver said. He cranked the truck back into gear and with a nod, peeled rubber in the direction of Fairbank Island and their homes.

    I watched them leave for a moment, still pondering what to do about the doctor, before I looked up and saw that the lights were on in Shurman’s office. In theory anyone could be in there, but a little butterfly of hope brightened my heart. I wanted to run into the building right away but first I knew I had to take a leap of faith.

    “I need you to do one more thing for me. Go to the police station. Admit what you’ve done and provide them with the details they’ll need to believe you.” I told the doctor. The suggestibility period of the mind control drug was fading rapidly. Whether my command stuck depended on a lot of things, with the biggest factor being his will to resist it. If he was truly unrepentant for what he had done, if he really couldn’t see the impact that his actions had on the people he come into contact with, then he might be able to fight off the compulsion to turn himself in that I’d planted. On the other hand, if he knew that what he had done was wrong, and if any part of him wished for forgiveness, he’d march right into the police station and get them onboard like I would never be able to.

    I watched him hesitate. He rocked back and forth on his heels for a moment before nodding slowly and turning to walk away. I looked for any sign that he was faking or that he was going to break the suggestion and run in the other direction. I couldn’t see them, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. If he was planning to run and escape from the consequences of his actions though, he would at least do so knowing that someone had given him the chance to live, rather than making the easy choice with a defeated enemy.

    I watched him for one more breath, then gathered myself together and headed up to Shurman’s office.

    I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. Maybe just to see Way, or maybe Kari waiting for us. Instead what I got was Way, Kari, Eddie Stone and Tiny Royals all looking over a large leather bound ledger that was on the center of Shurman’s desk.

    “It’s not gibberish, it’s a code.” Way said as I walked in the open door.

    “I’m seeing a ghost!” Tiny tapped her on the shoulder and pointed at me.

    Way looked up at me and smiled as soon as she recognized who I was. I smiled back, warm happiness washing my aches and pains away for a moment. Then she noticed my general state of being and frowned. I winced and shrugged, promising in the gesture that I’d explain it all later. She narrowed her eyes, requesting that later being sometime very close to the present. Even without dream speech we could communicate a lot it seemed.

    “Not a ghost, despite the Brotherhood’s best efforts.” I told the assembled crowd.

    “I thought you said she got shot?” Stone said.

    “She was. Right in the head.” Tiny replied.

    “He’s right.” I said, waving at my bandages. “But I’m tougher than I look.”

    Technically that was the truth. “The Amazing Jin” was lot more fit and a lot healthier than most eighteen year old girls could claim to be. It wasn’t why I’d survived being shot in the head. That was almost entirely due to magic, supplemented by the Brotherhood’s medical care as they tried to get me patched up enough to survive their interrogation formula.

    “Where have you been then?” Stone asked. I could see Way’s frown turn into a smirk as the gangster voiced the questions she wanted answers to as well.

    “I was enjoying a little visit with the people who burned down your club.” I told him. “Does the name Cranston Smythe ring a bell for you?”

    “The architect? That son of a…” Stone started to say.

    “Yeah, he’s the head of the local chapter of a bunch of whackos who call themselves the Brotherhood of the Dragon. He was the one who brought you into the deal wasn’t he?” I asked.

    “What deal?” Stone asked. He did a good enough job feigning ignorance that I couldn’t be sure he hadn’t actually forgotten what he was supposed to be involved in.

    “The redevelopment deal for Fairbanks Island.” I said.

    “Oh, yeah, that thing. What of it?” he asked.

    “It’s not particularly important now but that’s why he was planning to kill you.” I said.

    “Not important?” Stone asked.

    “Yeah, he’s got a lot of other reasons to want to kill you at this point. Starting with the fact that the Night Warder rescued you.” I said. I looked around the room and noticed her conspicuous absence. “Wait, where is she?”

    “The Brotherhood got her.” Way said.

    “Yeah, we got down to the ground floor of the building she’d brought us to and there were a bunch of guys waiting there. The boss was still out so she tucked us into a closet and went to lead them away. She didn’t get too far from what I heard though.” Tiny said.

    “They killed her?” I asked. Her death would be terrible news, but the alternative was possibly worse.

    “No, I smelled that knockout gas from before. I think they captured her.” Tiny said.

    “I found them a little while after that I believe.” Way said.

    “What happened with the task you were working on?” I asked.

    “The assassin was ahead of me. I managed to stop him from killing off the driver, but he got away. I headed over to join up with you after that, except you weren’t there. Then I found these two who informed me that you’d been killed.” she said.

    That would have been when she woke up on my world on went to look for me there. I was already off rescuing Peri at that point though so instead she’d talked with my Mom.

    For some reason the thought of that sent shivers down my spine.

    “Reports of my death were reasonable mistakes on the part of those who made them. If the bullet had hit just a hair’s breadth closer to center I’d have more than just a scratch on the side of my head and a killer headache.” I told them. Way and Kari knew what that really meant.

    Freak strokes of luck can and did happen on Earth Glass, but when they happened to one of us it’s because we demanded that they occur. There were limits on that sort of thing though. The shot that had “scratched” me, really had come close to missing. If it had been a dead center hit, I probably couldn’t have convinced the world to let the Amazing Jin survive it.

    “Where you get the bandages?” Stone asked.

    “The Brotherhood patched me up. They wanted to question me.” I said.

    “And then they let you go?” Stone asked.

    “Oh please, they tried to keep me tied up. Does that seem like even a vaguely wise idea with a professional magician?” I said.

    “So they’re going to be coming from you then?” Stone said. He looked like the shark that had scented prey swimming towards it when he asked the question.

    “Yeah. We have bigger problems though.” I said.

    “They’ve already burned down my club, what are they going to do next?” Stone asked.

    “Burn down Fairbanks.” I told him.

    “What? That’s impossible.” he said.

    “They’ve spent all last night, and maybe longer, making an army to do it. I saw the facility and I saw the drugs they were using. These guys may be evil and crazy, but you’ve seen that their damn effective too right?” I said.

    “What are we going to do?” Kari asked. I could see the fear rising up in her eyes. She’d been the one to put the fateweaving together that was driving this. If Fairbanks wound up burning she’d feel like she was responsible for the lives that were lost even if she was working to prevent that as hard as she could.

    “There’s over two hundred drugged up guys ready to burn the place down in a little over half an hour. That’s too many for the cops to handle.” I said. “But there’s someone who’s got an army big enough to take the Brotherhood’s zombies on.”

    I looked over at Stone and met his gaze directly.

    “Are you kidding me? What’s in this for me?” he asked.

    “A lot of things Eddie. You could say it’s about revenge. You could say its about showing people who’s the real boss of this town. Or you could make a lie you’ve been selling for years into the truth.” I said.

    “Lie? What are you talking about.” he said.

    “You’ve been selling ‘protection’ to the people in Fairbanks for years now Eddie. This is a chance for you to make that real. You can step up here and really be a protector. Make the world better for some people.” I said.

    “Pff, ain’t nobody does that for free.” Stone said.

    “So go with revenge, or go with showing ‘em who’s boss then. Either one of those should work fine right? But when you do, pay attention to how the people look at you when you save them. See how that makes you feel.” I said.

    “Its gonna make me feel like a chump.” he said, but from how he broke eye contact with me and turned away I could see I’d planted a seed there.

    “If we’re gonna do this, we need to leave right now boss.” Tiny said.

    “Think we can get the boys together in time?” Stone asked.

    “Yeah, just gotta make some calls.” Tiny said.

    “Then we’re outta here.” Stone said. He grabbed a hat off the desk, gave a nod to the three of us who were staying behind and marched out the door, with Tiny trailing behind him.

    “Are they going to be able to stop the arsons?” Kari asked.

    “I think so. I think that’s why they are still stuck in the fate weaving.” I told her. “The big question is whether we’ll be able to find Guy McIntyre to end the fate weaving and rescue Madelaine Deckard before she wakes up and breaks the world like an eggshell.”

    “Well, I think we can focus on the rescuing part of that.” Kari said.

    “Why’s that? Without McIntyre, the fate weaving will continue and things will just keep getting more dangerous.” I said.

    “That’s the problem. We can’t find Guy McIntyre because he never existed.”

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 27

    It’s easy to feel powerless in life. To feel like there are no options left to us. Often that’s not entirely true though. Sometimes that feeling of powerlessness springs from nothing more than fear of options we’d rather not take.

    Lying strapped to the operating table in the Brotherhood’s lair was a situation that was conducive to that sort of fear. For someone without “The Amazing Jin’s” training, it might have been an impossible scenario to escape from. Knowing what I did about slipping free from locks and restraints however meant that I knew escape was quite possible. I hesitated for a moment though because I also knew how much it was going to hurt.

    Under the best of circumstances, it can be taxing and painful to slip out of a full body restraint like the one I was tied down with. Add to that, the fact that I had not one but two bullet wounds and it was a borderline miracle that I didn’t pass out before I managed to get my good hand free.

    I managed not to scream either, though more than a few whimpers escaped my lips before I escaped the straps that held my good arm down.  Fortunately no one was close enough to hear them and once I had one hand free undoing the rest of the straps was a piece of cake.

    That left me free but dangerously lightheaded. I needed to rest and catch my breath, but I knew Smythe wasn’t going to be gone long. I pushed myself to my feet and started looking for inspiration for my next magic trick.

    “I need to make a girl disappear.” I mused to myself. As a magician, I’d be kicked out of the clubhouse if I couldn’t manage that, though I could perhaps file an appeal due to the lack of material to work with. All I had were bloody clothes, bandages and various surgical implements.

    “I can work with that.” I said as inspiration dawned on me.

    I took a serious and deadly looking pair of scissor-like things from a nearby counter and chopped open the straps I’d escaped from. I then left the scissor-things prominently visible on the table I’d been lying on. That was step one: make it so no one felt the need to question how I’d gotten out of my restraints.

    Step two was to take one of the bags of blood from the small refrigerator in the room and poke a hole in it. My exertions to escape the restraints had hurt like hell but I’d avoided tearing my wounds open enough to provide a theatrical amount of blood to work with. A few dozen drops from the bag though and I had plenty to leave a false trail of “footprints” out of the room. I made sure that the trail was visible outside the door into the hallway beyond but allowed the footprints to grow lighter over a dozen or so steps. The end result was even better than an arrow with the words “she went that way”.

    The last step was a very simple one. I put on my shoes and left the door open.

    I could have simply run for it, but, since I didn’t know where I was, the odds of running into more members of the Brotherhood seemed extremely high if I set off at random. Also, I knew I had only a minute or less to work with, which wasn’t much of a headstart on an escape, but plenty to work some misdirection.

    Smythe came back just as I was stepping behind the door. I froze, breathless and waited to see if the illusion held.

    “, this is impossible.” he said, inches away on the other side of the open door. I heard him start to move and braced myself for a fight. With one arm and a moment of surprise I might have been able to take him, but probably not before he screamed for help. Fortunately that didn’t prove to be necessary.

    “She’s escaped!” he screamed out and then turned in place. I couldn’t see what was happening but I could picture it easily enough. The first thing that had caught his attention was the open door. That had sent him into denial. He’d rushed to the room certain I’d still be on the table, but sick with fear that I wouldn’t be. From the doorway his fears had been confirmed and then the questions started. How had I gotten out? Obviously the scissor-things. They were right there and the straps were cut. Where was I? That had taken a moment longer but then he’d noticed the bloody footprints leading out of the room. I’d been hurt, so bloody footprints passed the plausibility check. They had to be mine, who else could they belong to? And they lead out into the hall, so no reason to search the room. I was clearly gone!

    Presto. One disappearing girl.

    Smythe left, screaming for people to stop me from reaching stairs that lead up to the exit. That he thought I was trying to escape by going up told me a number of things. First we were underground most likely. Second, the facility was big enough that he thought there was a chance I wasn’t already upstairs. Lastly, despite it being the path to the exit, “up” was the last direction I could move in for the time being.

    Instead, I waited a moment, then crept out of operating room and headed down the hallway in the opposite direction that Smythe had gone.

   The decor of the hallway and the rooms that I passed told me they’d brought me to a hospital, though apparently one that was not in use. In fact, it didn’t look like the hospital in been in use in a long time. Even my scant knowledge of the city was enough to turn up a likely candidate for where I was. Cutter’s Point Memorial.

    It had been designed as a sprawling facility on a cliff outside of the city overlooking the ocean. Then people had figured out that in a state known for its earthquakes, building things on cliffs wasn’t all that bright of an idea. Parts of the hospital had collapsed in the first quake after it was built and the whole structure had been deemed unfit. The owners had gone bankrupt after that and with the land so precarious, no one else had stepped forward to take the facility off the city’s hands. At least not officially. The Brotherhood of the Dragon didn’t seem to mind the precarious position of it’s HQ.

    At the end of the hallway, I found a doorway to stairs that led further down. Since the stairs seemed to be headed in the opposite direction of the exit, I took them reasoning that wherever they led would be the last place Smythe would think to look.

    The hospital stairs ended on a landing with a door marked “boiler room”. A new set of stairs descended further down from there though. I kept descending and was surprised to see the last set of stairs open on a large, cavernous area.

    The cavern was full of vehicles and machinery as well as dividers and holding pens. At the end near me, a tunnel wide enough for cars to drive through lead out of the cave. At the far end, there was a mouth which opened out over the ocean. The mouth was huge and looking at the rigging that lay in front of it I had a guess as to why.

    In front of the cave’s mouth there was an elaborate structure that looked like it was built to wrap around a long balloon. Unless I missed my guess, that was it’s exact purpose too.

    When we’d been shot at in Guy McIntyre’s apartment, our attackers had shown a steady spotlight in to illuminate us. McIntyre’s apartment was on the tallest building in the city though, so only a flying platform would have allowed them to get a spotlight that high and only a dirigible would be large enough and steady enough to support the spotlight and the three snipers.

    While that was enlightening and answered some of my earlier questions, it didn’t do much to provide me with a means to escape. The presence of several dozen men in the cavern didn’t help either.

    About a dozen of the men were sitting in the back of a truck that was being prepared to leave. Each of them were staring ahead blankly. A small number of other men were huddled in a cage about twenty feet away from me. Both of those groups of men were dressed in the kind of shabby clothes someone from the slums of Fairbanks Island wore. The rest of the men, the ones who were free and were roaming around performing various tasks were uniformed in black with various patches and insignia on them.

    “Hey, you can’t do this!” one of the caged guys yelled out.

    I did a double take. The voice was oddly familiar.

    “Yeah, Boss Stone finds out about this he’s gonna kill everybody you ever met.” another one said.

    I blinked in recognition. It was the guys from outside the diner that Way and I had stopped at!

    The uniformed Brotherhood members were ignoring the men in the cage. The men who were in the truck were ignoring everything.

    “Bring me the next subject!” a man in a doctor’s coat directed two of the armed members of the Brotherhood. Despite their earlier words, the men in the cage fell back in the face of the guards’ machine guns. Boss Stone might indeed get revenge for them but he was far away and the business end of the guard’s automatic weapons were much too close to argue with.

    The guards extracted the guy who’d first called out from the cage and led him over to a small, sealed room.

    “The Amazing Jin” had never had formal ninja training, but sneakiness mostly boils down to knowing how to read where people’s attention is and staying out of it. As a magician I had plenty of skill at that in this world, so sneaking up onto the roof of the makeshift “room” didn’t take me long. It wasn’t the most comfortable of perches, since the “roof” was nothing more than a few beams that ran over the four walls. On the upside, it did let me see what was going on easily enough.

    “What are you gonna do to me?” the man from the diner’s parking lot said.

    “Merely give you a small dose of medicine.” the doctor said as he picked up one several dozen syringes from the table beside him. It was filled with a disturbing, green fluid.

    “I ain’t feeling sick.” the man said.

    “This isn’t for physical illness.” the doctor said as he administered the injection into the man’s bicep.

    “Ow.” the main said. “What’s it for then?”

    “It’s for your mind. You sick, disorganized mind. Don’t worry it acts quickly. In fact you will feel it kicking in just about now.”

    “Kicking in…wha…?” the man slurred the last word as the drug took control of him.

    “Just like that.” the doctor said. “Now receive your instructions. Then next time you hear a noon bell ring, you will return to your home and burn it and all of the buildings around it to the ground. Am I clear?”

    “Yes. Why?” the man asked.

    “Because someone will come and buy your share of the land and you can move to a better place.” the doctor said. “When someone offers to buy the land from you, you will accept whatever price they offer, so long as it ends in thirteen cents. Do you understand.”

    “Yes.” the man said.

    My mind spun on what I’d heard. The Brotherhood had been trying to get control of Fairbanks Island through the development deal with Guy McIntyre.  Apparently their backup plan was to raze it and then buy the land at fire sale prices. Either option left them in control of the city’s newest center of commerce which couldn’t be anything but disastrous.

    Before the doctor could dismiss the man or call for the guard, I dropped down silently into the room behind him.

    “Ow, what was that?” the doctor asked as I jabbed another one of the syringes into him. I dropped the syringe and  wrapped my good hand around his mouth for a moment until he sagged into relaxation.

    “Where’s the counteragent?” I asked him. No secret society in the world would skip developing a counteragent to their own mind control drugs.

    “Over here.” the doctor said, his voice blurry as he pointed at a counter that contained a variety of vials on it.

    “Administer it to him.” I told the doctor, indicating his former “patient”.

    I watched him pick up a vial of blue liquid and and carefully fill a syringe with it. I looked at where he’d taken the vial from. Unfortunately it was the only one of its kind.

    The counteragent did its work as fast as the original formula, thankfully.

    “What happened?” the man from the diner said as the counteragent took effect.

    “You were drugged.” I told him.

    “Wait, you’re the magician girl? What are you doing here?” he asked.

    “Long story. What happened to you and your friends?” I asked.

    “Guys came by with some day labor, bunch of us jumped at it and then they brought us here. I don’t know nothing about nothing else.” he said

    “We’ve got get you out of here.” I told him.

    “And the boys too.” he said.

    “Yeah, everyone.” I said, just as the truck outside started up and pulled away.

    “Can you call them back?” I asked the doctor.

    “No.” he said without inflection.

    “Have any other trucks gone out?” I asked.

    “Yes.” the doctor said.

    “How many?”

    “Twenty two.” the doctor said.

    “Men?” I asked astounded.

    “No. Trucks.” he answered.

    At a dozen men in each truck, that meant a small army of arsonists were descending on Fairbanks Island.

    Even if I got word to them, there was no chance the police would be able to stop that many hypnotized pyromaniacs. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was just before 11:00 a.m. I had less than an hour to figure out how to stop the Brotherhood or thousands of people were going to burn.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 26

    In general, our bodies like sleep. It’s a chance to repair the damage we inflict on them, both major and minor. That’s part of the reason they make us feel so miserable when we try to wake up too early.

    “Ugh, what hit me?” I grumbled as I forced myself awake on Earth Glass. The world wasn’t happy about that but I’d badgered it long enough that it didn’t feel the need to shatter at the thought of me being conscious so soon after a head wound.

    Where the world was willing to let things slide though, my body had some very different ideas about the notion of me being awake. Or moving in the slightest. For as bad as it was though, I noticed that the pain was less than it should have been. The ‘Amazing Jin’ was tough but what I was feeling had to indicate that someone had given me some kind of drugs. Probably to get me to wake up sooner than later given the results.

    “A high caliber sniper round. Though only barely it seems.” a man said, answering my question in a faintly accented voice.

    I opened my eyes, blinking against the harsh light that was shining down from above me. I was in a tiled room with various tables and trays containing medical instruments. I was laying on a table in the center of the room, which was a good sign. It confirmed my suspicion that someone had been working to keep me alive. I was also strapped down to the table. That was a less positive sign.

    I began testing the straps and was immediately reminded that I’d been shot in the shoulder as well as the head and neither injury was anywhere near healed yet. Both injuries seemed to have been patched up to some degree though. The head wound was just a nasty scrape and a ridiculously painful headache but the shoulder had taken real damage and was bandaged up considerably.

    “Where am I?” I asked, though I had a pretty good guess based on the enemies I’d been making a few hours ago. I had to be in the hands of an enemy too. If Way or Kari had rescued me, they wouldn’t have tied me down.

    “In a medical lab, Miss…?” the man asked, prompting me to supply my name. He was standing at the top of the table so I tried to twist my head to try to see him. I didn’t have any luck there though. They’d strapped my head down to the table too.

    “You can call me Jin.” I said and continued lightly testing the straps that were holding me down.

    “Ah yes, ‘The Amazing Jin’ isn’t it? I saw your tryout at the Chimera Club last night.” the man said.

    “You missed the best parts of the act then.” I told him.

    “So I can imagine. Tell me though, why would a talented performer such as yourself be involved with the Scribes.” the man asked. There was an edge in his voice when he said ‘Scribes’ that told me it was the name of a particular group and that they were his enemy in some fashion.

    “And the Scribes would be?” I asked, having never heard of them.

    “Claiming ignorance? After you were shot in the company of one? That is not a wise move at this juncture.” he said. That meant the Scribes were either related to “Boss” Stone, or to the Night Warder and of the two, the mystery woman with the secret identity seemed like the safer bet. “Scribe” just didn’t seem to be a description you’d use for an organization a gangster was in.

    “I’ve been shot twice tonight. What part of that would lead you to believe that I’m wise?” I asked.

    “The part where two such injuries should incline you towards avoiding a third.” he answered. The irritation in his voice was at least partially due to sleep deprivation if I guessed right. That put a smile on my face. It was nice to see the bad guys were having as tough a night as I was.

    “If you were going to shoot me, I’d be laying dead in a gutter somewhere and you’d have a far worse problem on your hands.” I said. A far worse problem in the form of Way and Kari, but he didn’t need to be aware of that just yet.

    “Tell me, do you believe a rescue is coming? That we have taken you to one of the six venues which your fellow Scribes are aware of? Perhaps you’re counting on them arriving in the nick of time to rescue you from the Dragon’s teeth?” the man asked. He’d started pacing as he was talking, distracted by his aggravation.

    Pieces continued to fall into place. The Brotherhood of the Dragon had been after Way and I since the show at the Chimera Club. They’d shot up our private investigator’s office, burned down our apartment and the Chimera Club and I was reasonably sure they were the ones who’d shot up Guy McIntyre’s penthouse suite too.

    That was a lot of mayhem in a short time, so something had to be motivating them pretty strongly. The presence of a rival secret society might go a long way towards supplying that motivation.

    They thought Way and I had stolen some files from them, or at least knew where the files were. That meant our private investigator, Detective Shurman, was probably the one who’d found the files. The chance that we would know what was important in a random set of documents seemed pretty low though, or at least not enough to justify the efforts they were making to reclaim them. If they thought we were members of a secret society they were at war with however, they would have to assume that we would know exactly how to use hidden data to hurt them badly.

    The one piece of the puzzle that eluded me was how they’d gotten wrapped up in this in the first place. Then I saw who was interrogating me.

    “To be honest, I’m really hoping no one shows up to save me, Mr Smythe. Or should I call you Cranston?” I asked. He’d walked a little too far around me, so that I was able to get a glimpse at him. The last of the “Big 3” players in the fateweaving.

    Together with Guy McIntyre and Eddie Stone, Cranston Smythe had been at the center of the redevelopment deal that Kari had picked as the focal point of her fateweaving.  The deal had been a chance for the city to revitalize itself by rebuilding the worst of its neighborhoods into a center of industry. It had also been a chance for the people involved to gain a lot of very subtle power over the city’s future.

    “You recognize me do you?” he asked, his tone a little too smooth to cover his surprise.

    “Enough to know that you don’t plan to let me out of this operating room alive.” I told him.

    “You are very perceptive, but we neither need nor wish to kill you. Covering up a dead body which people are sure to look for is too much work. If you work with us we will only need to erase your memories to ensure you are not a threat to our cause.” he explained.

    “And if I resist.” I asked.

    “You cannot resist us. The formula I have developed will weaken your will. If you try to fight the chemicals I shall administer more as needed. Eventually you will talk but if you force me to administer too much then your mind will melt under the strain once you’ve told us everything we desire to know.” Smythe said.

    “Doesn’t sound pleasant.” I admitted. “ The truth is I don’t know the answers to your question, but I get that you’re not capable of believing that yet. Unfortunately by the time you are, we’re going to be having a much different sort of conversation.”

    Due to who and what I was, my mind wasn’t tied to my body in this world. So Smythe’s threat carried less weight than it would have for anyone else in my position.  That said though if the body I was using had a scrambled brain I’d be viewing the world through a distorted lens for as long as I inhabited it.

    “You won’t be capable of conversation at all if you insist on the charade of ignorance.” Smythe informed me. I sighed. I didn’t want to have the sort of conversation that started with him trying to fry my brain with chemicals. Those kind of discussions tended to end with pieces missing from the world I was in and a few extra demerits going on my official record.

    “I could try to talk you out of this. I could even try to convert you away from the life that you’ve chosen. Do you think I should bother with that Mr Smythe?” I asked, vainly hoping for a simpler resolution to our discussion.

    “I think you should look to your own future. You have some few minutes left before my assistant is finished preparing the truth formula. If you tell me what I need to know before he arrives, I will need to administer only the smallest of doses, just enough to remove your memories of the last several days.” he said.

    “Tell me what you want to know then.” I said. Diplomacy can be a deadly weapon but it does have limitations, many of which involve an inability to talk sense into the senseless. Very talented individuals can manage that but despite four years of training, I’m still too much of a novice at it to manage that particular form of magic. Especially when I don’t have my enhanced awareness to draw on for clues as to what secrets the other party is hiding.

    “The location of the files which were stolen from us.” he said.

    “Would those be the ones with the membership roster for the Brotherhood or are you looking for the other files?” I asked. I had no idea what was in the files the Detective Shurman had purloined, but since my actual ignorance wasn’t going to get me anywhere I had to settle for playing on Smythe’s paranoia.

    “You don’t have our membership roster.” Smythe said, his tone indicating that his patience was wearing thin.

    “That’s true, at the moment I do not have your membership roster.” I said, playing for time. One of the key parts of a secret society is that it needs to stay a secret. If Smythe didn’t think we could blow the secrecy of the Brotherhood by revealing its members I was at a loss for what was driving them to recover the documents.

    “You have no idea what is in the files you stole. Don’t think your fellow Scribes will be able to decode them either. No one outside the Brotherhood knows the cipher they were written in.” he said.

    “Are you sure about that?” I asked him. “Shurman knew they were important enough to take. He knew they were important enough to die for. Do you imagine he would have been willing to do that for a bunch of random scribbles?”

    “That won’t work Ms. Jin. We reclaimed the decoding tablet from his body. We know he didn’t pass that on.” Smythe said.

    That caught my attention. There weren’t a lot of things a secret society would encrypt in an “unbreakable” cypher apart from their membership list. Bank account information and financial holdings were matters of public record. You obfuscate those by establishing them in the name of fictional companies or individuals. Blackmail requires proof, pictures, letters, or other artifacts that can support the blackmailer’s accusations. Apart from those, I only knew of one other thing that secret societies tended to value.

    “He passed on enough to us to make out the general details of the ceremony, the time, location and participants. How about I tell you where the files are after you tell me where you’re keeping the sacrifices?” I was taking an enormous gamble on little more than a guess, but it was an informed guess.

    Groups of all kinds establish bonds between their members by making them take part in shared rituals. In the case of a secret society of murders and arsonists, those rituals had to ensure that everyone in the society was on board with the actions the society took. Most people aren’t monsters inside, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be convinced otherwise. A little alcohol, a charismatic figure to respect, the offer of power. Put those together, add some peer pressure  and people can wind up believing all sorts of insane things about themselves.

    That sort of belief is short lived though. Outside of the context of the ritual, the participants can wake up the next day and remember who they are. That’s why the sacrifices are needed. A society like the Brotherhood of the Dragon needs to make sure that its members don’t try to cross back over the line they’ve stepped beyond. It needs them to stay as the monsters it wants them to be, and making them do something irrevocably wrong is the easiest path towards accomplishing that.

    Looking into Cranston Smythe’s eyes I could see the haunted panic that my wild guess sparked. The Brotherhood believed they were powerful enough to get away with their crimes, but in their heart each one knew, on some level, how vulnerable they were. It was their anonymity that protected them from the consequences of their actions, more so than any other power they wielded.

    I smiled a malicious, knowing grin at him and held his gaze. He desperately wanted to believe I was bluffing. He needed to see me flinch and reveal that I was lying about knowing what he was and what the Brotherhood was up to. Underneath all that though, he was afraid. Down at it’s darkest roots, icy veins of terror reached up to grip his heart in a deadly claw of despair.

    I wasn’t a threat to him. I was strapped to a table and wounded, but I wasn’t afraid. That meant I still had secrets. I couldn’t harm him, but I obviously knew someone who could, and based on what I said, they had the information required to do it.

    “I see it is pointless offering you mercy. We shall apply the formula at once.” Smythe snarled as he stomped out of the room and ran down the hall outside it.

    “Finally!” I breathed in relief. With my audience gone, it was at last time to start working my magic!

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 25

    “Unlikely allies” sums up most of the people I know. From my brother James, the honest-to-Greek-gods super powered hero, to Kari, the former tavern maid turned reality manipulator, to Way, the girl who managed to do the impossible in a realm where everything is possible. Together, with them and others, I’ve handled a lot of problem in the last four years. One thing that’s shown me is that assuming the people on the other side of a conflict are “the bad guys” can be a terrible mistake.

    People are complex and, while there are definitely “bad guys” out there, people who are driven by humiliating, violating or destroying others, they make up a much smaller minority than it looks like at first glance. The truth is, most conflicts come about because people are broken. Not “other people”. Not “the guys who are on the other side of the battle from us”. People, meaning all of us, myself definitely included.

    The other thing that leads to conflict is a lack of imagination. It’s so easy to look at situations as being an “either/or”. Either I win or you do. Either I’m right or you are. Often though, those are both lies. I win the game and you lose, so you stop playing and now I have no one to play with, so I lose as well. Even with something as straight forward as that, there’s a third option, one where the game is balanced so that whoever wins, both of us have enough fun playing the game that we want to come back and try again.

    People change as well and yesterday’s enemy can become tomorrow’s friend with just a small change in perspective sometimes.

    “I see they managed to escape.” RG said, as he landed on my shoulder in his black bird form.

    “From the castle at least.” I said.

    “Which they seem to have destroyed in the process.” RG noted.

    “That was me actually.” I said.

    “Didn’t want the little girl setting up house there?” he asked.

    “Or worrying about the corners of it she didn’t have a chance to explore.” I said.

    “It’s a shame, I rather liked that place.”

    “You did some nice work setting it up.” I admitted.

    “I’ve thought about your offer.” RG said.

    “Not to your liking I take it?”

    “Quite the contrary. That is if you would be amenable to a slight modification.” he said.

    I blinked and turned to look at him in surprise.

    “What modification do you have in mind?” I asked warily. By offering to bind himself to me as a vassal, RG was offering to give up a lot of his potential power. Left on his own he could be the equivalent of a god in a world of his own making. Under my rule he’d be no more than “The Queen’s Steward” effectively.

    “I’d like to make a new realm.” he said.

    “Ok, but why would you be willing to swear yourself to me for that?” I asked.

    “Because I can only make them around rifts such of the one that the little girl guarded. And I need someone inside the world to notice me and suggest a form that I can take. Otherwise any realm I create just bubbles away as soon as I take my attention away from it.” he explained.

    “So you would like me to open another rift for you to work with?” I asked.

    “Or find an existing one.” he said.

    “I’d put the same restrictions on the new realm that I’ve placed on Bedlam though.” I warned him.

    “I presumed as much.” he said.

    “Then why wouldn’t you want Bedlam back?”

    “Because I don’t want to be the Monster-under-the-bed anymore and that’s whose home Bedlam is to me.” he said.

    I paused and considered that. I knew that he’d wanted to trade a secret to me and that the secret was the reason for Bedlam’s appearance as a nightmare realm. It looked scary and creepy because Peri had believed that a rift under her bed would lead to a scary and creepy place. That had apparently also shaped the identity that RG had been required to take on.

    “If that’s what you want then I can agree to it. I’ll find you a new home if you’ll work for me there.” I said.

    “I’ll want some say over the home in question. You are, at the moment, a Wicked Queen. I’d rather not build a realm around a refuse pit for example.” RG said.

    “Yes, you’ll have full veto power.” I agreed.

    “Then I believe we have an arrangement.”

    “Excellent!” I said, and then ate him.

    It was a perfectly wicked thing to do, so it fit in well with Bedlam’s overall milieu, but it was far from as cruel as it appeared.

    In swallowing RG, I gave him a little temporary world within the cosmos of my dreams. It was his to fill as he wished and nestled in my dreams he would be safe from all external harm.

    “I hope you’ll find the accommodations comfortable.” I told him. “Feel free to wander, although I recommend staying within the confines of that dream. I keep other things in there which are a bit unpleasant.”

    ‘Waste not, want not’ was kind of my motto when it came to dealing with deadly terrors and eldritch horrors.

    I turned my attention back to Peri and noticed that she and Belle were talking to a tiny seed man who stood on Peri’s palm.

    “Really, I didn’t need that body anymore, anyways.” the seed man said. He looked like a green tear drop the size of my thumb with a pair of arms and legs. At the top of the tear drop shape were the seed man’s eyes and mouth. There was something about them that looked familiar enough that I didn’t even need meta-awareness to tell me who he was.

    “But, you’re not Mr. Stumpy anymore!” Peri said, pouting.

    “Bah, who wants to be Stumpy, when I can BLOOM AGAIN!” the little seed shouted.

    “He will be able to fit through the rift better like this.” Belle pointed out. She was still in her large form and Peri was still on her back. I looked around for Stumpy’s tree body and noticed that it had fallen down into the Sky Moat after Stumpy had regrown himself as the seed man.

    “Oh yeah, how are we gonna get back?” Peri asked, looking around for RG and seeing only open sky and the clouds below on one side and the collapsed castle on the other.

    “I’ll carry you.” Belle said.

    “It’s a long way though.” Peri objected.

    “Then rest on my back and I’ll go carefully.” Belle said.

    “But I’m not tired.” Belle said, and then yawned.

    Ten seconds later she was snoozing away like someone had flipped a light switch.

    “A sleep spell?” I asked Belle as I appeared beside her.

    “A little one. It is supposed to be nap time for her.” Belle said.

    “Would you like to take her back then? I left your barrier in place at the rift.” I said.

    “Certainly. What should I tell your mother?” Belle asked.

    “I’ll be along in a minute. I just want to wrap up this realm and close the rift once you’re back.” I told her.

    “I’ll see you at your home then!” Belle said and like the wind she was gone.

    I waited until I felt her bring Peri and “Seedly” through the rift back to my world and then turned to my new realm.

    I was half tempted to leave it as was, but that could lead to all manner of issues later on. For safety sake, I swallowed Bedlam too, incorporating it into the same cosmos of dreams that RG’s bubble of a world floated in. Once it was safely tucked away, I touched the rift between the Dreamlit world and my home Earth. As I’d expected, it was my fault. That meant it was also my job to stay and hold the rift closed otherwise it would continue to expand and eventually let something through that was a whole lot less pleasant than RG.

    Pulling a single hair from my head, I conjured a needle and stitched the two sides together. I had to hold the rift closed, but it only took a little bit of me to do that. In time, if it couldn’t expand, the wound in the world would heal and vanish on its own. Until then I wasn’t going to miss the strand of hair I’d left behind.

    With that problem taken care of I was free to return home and face the challenge of explaining what had gone on to my mother. Surprisingly when I stepped back into my room, the house was quiet. Not eerily quiet, just regularly quiet. I tip toed over to Peri’s room to find her fast asleep in her bed with Belle in puppy form curled up at the foot of her bed.

    I actually had Ninja training (you pick up a lot of weird skills as a Dreamlord) so sneaking out of Peri’s room without waking her was a breeze. I was almost good enough to do it without Belle noticing but before I got the door closed I noticed one little puppy dog eye open and regard me me casually before closing again to get back to nap time.

    I expected my Mom to still be working in the kitchen but when I got there the cake was cooling on the counter and she was nowhere to be seen. I poked around inside looking for her only to discover a surprise waiting for me.

    Way was sleeping on the couch in the living room.

    Part of me felt a rush of relief at seeing her. Another part of me nearly jumped out of my skin at being “caught”. Both reactions were kind of stupid, and I knew it, but like everyone else, I’m kind of stupid sometimes.

    I thought of Peri in Bedlam. I thought of the fierce courage she’d shown and how it had seen her through. She was going to be just fine now thanks to confronting her fears. As I crept out to the garden I thought how unfair it was that she’d gotten all of Mom’s courage genes.

    “Oh, you’re back!” my Mom said as I wandered towards the shed that she was planting something near. She wasn’t looking at me, and I was pretty sure I hadn’t been making much noise. On the other hand trying to sneak up on Mother Nature in her own garden was a losing bet on the best of days, so I wasn’t too surprised.

    “Yep! Peri is too, though I’m guessing you noticed that.” I said.

    “I did. She was sleeping though. Is she ok?” Mom asked.

    “Completely so. You should have seen her. I was barely able to keep up with her over there!” I said, feeling a weird pride at how tough my little sister had proven to be.

    My mother breathed a sigh of relief.

    “She looked ok, and your friend Belle said she’d made it out without getting hurt, but I remembered what you had said.” my Mom said.

    “I don’t think she’s in any danger of latching onto Bedlam. She got what she wanted out it. She’ll move on to other obsessions from here.” I smiled at the thought of Peri’s single minded focus and it’s mercurialness. She was almost like a tiny fairy in that sense.

    “Which, I gather, now includes ‘her puppy’?” Mom asked.

    “I know you and Dad didn’t want to get her one, but she really worked to ‘save’ Belle in there. And, you know,on the upside it’s not like Belle needs to be house broken or anything.” I said.

    “Is she safe?” Mom asked.

    “Not in the slightest. For anyone who tries to mess with Peri that is. As a guardian for my little sister there’s maybe a handful of people I can think of who would be stronger defenders and that list includes you, me and James.” I said.

    “She’s polite too.” Mom said.

    “Yeah. She’s actually Way’s familiar so there’s some similarity there.” I said.

    “Will Way mind if Belle is looking after Peri?”

    “I don’t think so. Belle was looking after me for a while since Way’s so well defended it was boring protecting her.” I said.

    “She’s here you know.” my Mom said.

    “Yeah, I saw her sleeping on the couch. When did she get here?” I admitted.

    “About an hour after you went looking for Peri.”

    “Was she ok?” I asked. An hour was a lot sooner than I’d expected her to come looking for me.

    “She said she was. She also said something about missing capturing an assassin though. She wanted to talk with you about it.”

    “What did you tell her?” I asked.

    “Not too much. We talked for a little bit and then she needed to get back to the other world. I’m sure she’ll tell you about it later.”

    I’d wondered sometimes where the evil wicked streak in me had come from. Seeing my mother’s intentionally mysterious smile, I no longer had any doubts.

    “She wanted to head back to her home but I offered to let her sleep here. The boys won’t be back till around 6:00, so things should be quiet till then. I’ll move her upstairs if you two aren’t awake for dinner.” Mom said.

    “Thanks. I should get back there. I think there’s been enough time that I can nudge the world into letting me wake up.” I said.

    “I’m just going to finish off this planting and I’ll be back inside.” Mom said.

    “What is it that you’re planting?” I asked.

    “Oh, just a chatty little seed your sister was carrying. He’s sleeping now while he waits to grow. It shouldn’t take too long I would think.” she said.

    I paused at that. Usually when objects (or people) from the Dreamlit world are brought into the real world, they become more real. In Stumpy’s case (or I suppose it was more correct to call him “Seedly”) I’d expected that would mean he’d become a normal seed and that his spirit would become something like a dryad, a magical creature who watched over the world on one of the nearby mystical planes.

    Instead it seemed like we were due to have a walking, talking tree in our garden at some point. One I hadn’t put any particular limits on. Shrugging, I turned and headed inside. There would no doubt be all sorts of trouble that Seedly would get into but sometimes you need to let the seeds of adventure for another day bloom in their own time.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 24

    There are all kinds of courage because there are all kinds of fear. The courage to face pain, the courage to press on in the face of loss, the courage to believe that we can make a difference. Being afraid isn’t a sign that we lack courage. None of us are fearless in all situations, there’s always something that can hurt us, at least until the day we die. We can be courageous and afraid at the same time, we just need to be able to chose what we do, rather than letting our fears chose for us.

    “The Castle of Final Peril.” RG announced as the he set down in front of the ruin of the castle’s front gate.

    “This place looks even less friendly up close.” Stumpy said. I’d tinkered with it a bit as they’d flown closer. I’d cleaned up the bodies of RG’s force, dissolving them back into the essence of the realm they’d been pulled from. For the castle though I’d left the damage that I’d done in place and augmented it with the wear of centuries. RG’s version of the castle had been a bustling center of his power. This version was the ruin of it.

    “It is.” RG replied. “This is the home of the Wicked Queen. The horrible beast who rules this land.”

    I nudged him in his ghostly ribs. Horrible beast? That wasn’t very fair. I should have qualified for at least “terrifying”.

    “The puppy is in there?” Peri asked. The ominous presence of the castle was a lot stronger up close, both due to it’s sheer size and the shadows it projected as it gobbled up the moonlight that fell on it.

    “So I have been told.” RG said, rubbing his ribs.

    “Who told you?” Peri asked.

    “The wind.” he replied, which was technically true, since I’d been in the form of a breeze when I’d spoken to him. Peri shrugged and accepted that a ghost could talk to the wind without requiring further justification.

    “Got get her!” Peri said. I’m not sure why she thought she could command a ghost. Probably it was simply because she didn’t want to go in there herself and was looking for any options she had to avoid it.

    “As you request.” RG said with a smile and a bow. It surprised me, but he seemed to be as happy playing the role of her servitor as he was playing the ruler of Bedlam. I thought about that for a moment. Either role would grant him the measure of reality that he craved, so perhaps it actually didn’t make a difference to him? It was something I’d have to ask Professor Haffrun about later. For the moment though I watched as he walked forward towards the gate and slammed into an invisible wall.

    “Oww.” he said and started feeling around the entranceway looking for an opening he could pass through. “Hmm, it looks like the castle has been protected by a Ghost Ward since I was here last.”

    “What’s that?” Peri asked.

    “The Wicked Queen doesn’t want me to come back so she’s made it so no ghosts can enter the castle. That means I have to stay out here.” RG explained. I need Peri on her own if she was going to confront her fears. That meant peeling away RG from her, especially since he’d already fulfilled the terms of the deal I’d offered him.

    “Ok. We’ll go then.” Peri said and dragged Stumpy along with her. Since neither of them were ghosts, they were able to pass through the wards around the ruined gate without a problem.

    “Were you planning to let me get back to my body or am I going to need to build another one?” RG asked once they’d passed into the castle, knowing that I could hear him.

    “I should give you a fluffy bunny body for that crack about being a horrible beast.” I said, taking my normal form again. “But you did do a good job getting here.”

    I snapped my fingers and RG’s ghostly form was replaced with his physical body.

    “You’re not leaving me frozen in the ice?” he asked, surprised at the freedom.

    “You asked for your freedom.” I said.

    “I also asked for my realm back.” he said.

    “That I can’t do for you.”

    “I’m fairly certain you can.” he objected.

    “That I can’t do for you in a manner that you would enjoy.” I elaborated.

    “Try me.” he said.

    “I’ve bound Bedlam in laws to make it safe for my world. To destroy those laws would destroy Bedlam itself. If I passed Bedlam back to you, you would be bound by those same laws. You’d basically become my vassal.” I said.

    “But I would have Bedlam to rule?” he asked.

    “Yes. To the extent that you didn’t violate my general wishes for it.” I said.

    “I will need to consider that.”

    “Feel free to roam anywhere you’d like while you do. Except through the portal to Earth. Belle’s barrier is still in place there and I don’t think it will react kindly to you if you try to cross it.”

    My offer wasn’t that generous given that no matter where he went in Bedlam, I’d be aware of what he was doing. RG accepted it graciously though, turned into a blackbird and took wing away from the Castle.

    I turned my attention back to Peri and found that she and Stumpy had arrived at the Sky Moat.

    “That’s a long way down.” Stumpy said. He was looking at the chasm that confronted them.

    The half sphere which formed the mountain’s crown was balanced on top of the spire that pierced the clouds. It was a formation that could never have occured on my world. Even if someone had built something like it, the weather would have knocked it down in short order.

    This was the Dreamlit world though. The impossible was not only probable but likely. A freestanding road of floating glass steps wound around the spire and lead to the outermost edge of the half sphere the castle stood on. Anyone brave enough to climb those steps would arrive where Peri and her crew had. Outside the outer wall. Those who managed to penetrate the outer wall were then faced with the “Sky Moat”.

    The Sky Moat had been carved completely through the mountain’s crown to serve as a bottomless pit of air. It meant that the outer rim of the mountain top wasn’t attached to anything in particular, but a floating piece of mountain was fairly tame by comparison to some of the things that lurked in Bedlam.

    That didn’t mean it was any easier for Peri and Stumpy to deal with though. If you fell into the moat you’d fall all the way down through the clouds to the slopes of the mountain several miles below. Neither Peri or Stumpy could fly and jumping the moat was similarly beyond their abilities.

    “We gotta get in there!” Peri said.

    “I might know a way.” Stumpy said.

    “What?” Peri asked.

    “I think I can reach those poles on the far side where the drawbridge is supposed to be. You could climb over me and get inside like that.” Stumpy said. I’d crushed the drawbridge during my assault and hadn’t seen a reason to repair it.

    “How are you gonna get over?” Peri asked.

    “I’ll have to wait here.” Stumpy said.

    Peri frowned and furrowed her brow. She knew that meant she’d have to go forward alone if she wanted to continue and being alone was, almost, the last thing she wanted to do.

    “It’s not too late to turn back.” Stumpy suggsted gently.

    Peri rocked side to side, fighting against things inside herself that she didn’t have a name for yet.

    “No.”  she said finally.

    “No?” Stumpy asked, unsure of what she was disagreeing with.

    “I’ll go.” she said. She was staring straight ahead at the castle’s inner gate, her hands clenched into tiny fists.

    “Ok, climb up on my shoulders then.” Stumpy said. She did and he extended his roots as far as he could and then reached outward with his branches. For a moment it looked like the two of them were going to tumble down into the Sky Moat but before they could, Stumpy caught the poles on the far side and stopped their fall.

    Peri didn’t need to be told to start climbing. She scampered up Stumpy’s outstretched branches faster than a chipmunk and fell to the ground on the far side of the Sky Moat with a cheer of joy when she got there.

    “I’ll hold on here. Don’t take too long though!” Stumpy said.

    “Ok.” Peri said, and turned to venture into the inner castle.

    “Thank you Stumpy.” I said, drifting over to him in the form of a breeze after Peri had moved out of earshot.

    “My pleasure my Queen. Will she be able to bring me back with her though?” he asked.

    “That’s going to depend on her and how she does in there. If she can’t though I’m make sure you’re suitably rewarded.” I told him.

    “That would be more appealing if you weren’t the Wicked Queen of Bedlam.” Stumpy said.

    “Don’t worry. I’m a lot more than that.” I told him and then whisked off after Peri.

    She’d made it into the entrance hallway. It was a long, dark archway that opened onto a dimly lit room beyond. Here are there shafts of silver moonlight speared through the darkness but the stones seemed to eat the light where it landed on them rather than reflecting it to illuminate the room any further.

    As Peri walked deeper into the castle, I summoned up more wind to howl around the outside of it. There was nothing in the archway or the entrance chamber except the rubble and ruin that remained from my rampage as a dragon. With the wind howling though it sounded like a chorus of ghosts were moaning from the different spots in the room where the sound snuck in.

    “You’re all aloooooone.” the ghostly voices seemed to howl.

    Peri looked around for the source of the words, but kept moving on.

    “You’re all alone in the dark.” the voices said, some retreating far away, some rushing in right past her ears.

    She jumped at that and I could see the goosebumps rising on her arms and neck. Her eyes were wide open and she was breathing quickly. Somehow though she kept moving. She wandered into the entrance hall and then into the covered garden beyond it.

    The garden’s flowers had all withered and were hanging wilted on their stems. In place of the fragrance of the many species a garden should support, the castle’s garden’s smelled only of dust and age.

    Peri looked around, but apart from the withered plants, the garden was as empty as the entrance hall had been.

    “Puppy?” she called out in a tiny voice.

    There was no answer except for the wordless ghost wailing from outside.

    “Puppy?” she whispered even more quietly as she walked through the garden.

    Still no answer.

    She reached the other end of the garden and found a pair of doors with the image of a fierce and baleful looking dragon carved into them. Carved into the doors beneath the dragon, there were smaller figures, all skeletons, that the dragon had burned up.

    “I’m not alone.” Peri said to herself.

    “Whoooo’s with you?” the ghostly voices seemed to ask.

    “Mommy and Daddy. And James. And Jin. Mommy said they’re always with me.” she whispered our names like a magic spell she wasn’t sure of, but I watched the effect they had on her. Remembering each of us seemed to strengthen her. I didn’t get that. I mean I was with her but I wasn’t exactly making her life easier. Mom, Dad, and James weren’t even that close. They were literally a world away. Saying our names should have reminded her of how alone she was, not made her feel better.

    “Doooon’t goooo in thereee.” the ghostly voices said.

    “That’s where the puppy is.” she said, wild, childhood intuition moving her forward where no plausible reasoning would.

    “Doooon’t goooo in thereee!” the ghostly voices insisted.

    Peri drew herself up to her full height, a new fire in her eyes.

    “Puppy!” she shouted and barreled at the doors. The dragon on the doors roared as she approached, or perhaps it was only the wind. It didn’t stop her in either case. She smashed through the doors and into the throne room that held the center of her fears. The dreadful monster under the bed.

    Inside the room stood the Throne of Bedlam.

    It was empty.

    The whole throne room was empty in fact.

    As Peri looked around the ghostly wailing from outside revealed itself as nothing more than the wind. Through the hole I’d smashed in the wall, moonlight streamed in, illuminating the room brightly and showed that it was just a dusty, old room.

    Peri was panting and hunched over at the end of her charge but straightened up as she looked around the empty room. I watched as she took it in. At first she was wary and tense, waiting for something terrible to appear. Then her head tipped to one side and her shoulders relaxed. There wasn’t anything terrible in the room. Even the Wicked Queen was just a picture that hung over the throne.

    “PUPPY!” she yelled, unafraid of attracting attention at last.

    A woof of doggie delight came from beyond the far end of the throne room.

    That was all it took to send Peri scurrying forward.

    Unfortunately that was also all it took for the castle to begin crumbling. Peri was past her fear of Bedlam, the next step was to make sure she didn’t set up shop there.

    Peri felt the floor giving way underneath her just as she saw Belle racing down the hallway that lead out of the far end of the throne room. Belle saw her at the same instant and morphed from puppy to her full War Beast form.

    Peri and the floor had fallen maybe ten feet by the time Belle arrived and snatched Peri up by her shirt collar. With a flick of her head, Belle tossed the little girl onto her back and bounded up, leaping off the collapsing bits of floor with a strength and speed that was completely inhuman.

    “We’re getting out of here! Hold on tight!” Belle yelled as she streaked out of the collapsing castle. At first I thought Peri was screaming in terror but listening more closely I noticed that she was squealing with delight.

    Together my sister and her puppy fled the Castle of Final Peril, laughing the whole way.